By Gerry Hadden
Shooting a long-format documentary on the fast-moving Coronavirus is an exercise in being perpetually behind the news. Death and infection numbers change by the hour, new clusters of disease appear before you’ve downloaded that day’s images. But while shooting the Spanish part of “Emerging,” our doc on Europe coming out of confinement, it felt like we were getting too far in front of the story.
Because Spain, during May and June 2020, was one giant ghost town. We clocked nearly 2,000 kilometers on Spanish roads and barely saw another car. Bars and restaurants were closed. Hotels were shuttered. At times the “emerging” we set out to capture seemed more wishful thinking than reality.
As journalists we were allowed to travel the country but the country could not accommodate us. Everything had an eery, end-of-the-world feeling to it. We fended for ourselves, gearing up for the oddest camping trip of our lives. Normally to find solitude you have to escape into the deep woods. Now the solitude was everywhere. Something we couldn’t escape from. We became hobos – albeit hobos with a car packed with cinema equipment.
We slept several nights under the stars, swinging in our hammocks from trees overlooking the Ebro Delta and the Mediterranean Sea. Huddling under our tarps waiting for downpours to end. Making coffee at dawn, then making every effort to leave our campsites as pristine as we’d found them. Because it’s the right thing to do, and because stealth camping is not allowed in Spain.
But what choice did we have? The Pandemic Planners had bigger problems than those of a couple of wayward filmmakers looking for room at the inn.
Not that we were complaining. One night we slept along the edge of a lake near Aragón, watching swans glide past as we boiled water for our ready-to-eat freeze-dried dinner. On another occasion, desperate for sleep but not finding a spot to hang our beds, we crashed on a rock ledge overlooking the locked-down city of Murcia. Around our ears the whine of mosquitos; below, the wail of sirens.
Days earlier, along the Ter River, we were able to find just one decent camping spot: a cluster of pine trees deep into someone’s farmland. To avoid detection we waited till late afternoon to pitch camp. The last thing we wanted was a confrontation with an angry land owner. But we miscalculated.
With our hammocks up, our packs open and our little frying pan sizzling with veggies and rice, a car came down the dirt track. The driver, an eldery woman, braked when she saw us. Two disheveled, unshaven bums huddled around a smokey stove. A long moment passed as she sat staring at us staring at her.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” I said to Armando, thinking she’d accept our “foreign press” credentials more readily if I pretended not to understand her. Armando laughed. “Coward!” He leapt up and introduced himself, apologized for the intrusion and explained that the next morning we were interviewing the mayor of her small farming town.
She relaxed. “I thought you were Gypsies,” she said, “coming to squat on my land.”
The next morning at dawn she woke us with a box of fresh eggs from her hens. Breakfast went from yesterday’s bread with some cheese to a delicious scramble and a warm side of neighborliness. We left her land spotless, as if we’d never been there.
“Emerging” has since aired. And the story continues to change. Today, parts of Spain are sliding back towards some form of renewed lockdown as new pockets of Covid-19 spring up. Everything is uncertain. Our campsites are out there should hotels close down again.