In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

{Yesterday I saw the film MirrorMask, not for the first time. Its loveliness, its quirkiness, the fact that it begins and ends in a circus – a kind of metaphor for my life – and its ability to make me feel joy and wonder each time I watch it, have lodged in my brain somewhere and a kind of movie review/essay is on the way. In the meantime, I was reminded recently of a film review/essay I wrote in December of 2012. So there’s that one, and MirrorMask musings will emerge when it’s ready.}

What happens when “two ordinary guys” from Queens decide to follow in the footsteps of one of the most (in)famous travelers in history? Two years of adventure, danger, frustration, sometimes boredom, sometimes joy, and ultimately an exploration of both the far distant past, and their own present.

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo is the truly captivating recounting of those two years. To say it is a recounting of the journey of a lifetime is quite literally true: it took Marco Polo 24 years to complete, from 1271-1295, and the two men’s journey is no less an epic adventure.

The documentary begins with a male voiceover, over a slightly Eastern-style music, reciting the names of exotic, far away places, overlaying still photos of what we assume might be images of those very places. Right away the film draws us in, asking “can you imagine all those places, the magical names, Samarkand, Bukhara, Beijing, Iran, Afghanistan…” and we step into the world of Francis O’Donnell and Denis Belliveau. As an opening it is quite effective, and as O’Donnell finishes naming the magical places, we get a shot of him talking in classic documentary interview format – to one side of the screen, speaking to someone we cannot see. The next voice we hear, again overlaying still images of more exotic places, is Belliveau’s, and again we cut to him and he speaks. This becomes a motif in this film – exotic, exciting images with a voiceover, then a cut to either O’Donnell or Belliveau speaking to an interviewer. I discuss later the effect this has as the film in the ‘present,’ the men’s journey in their past, and Marco Polo’s journey in the 13th century begin to merge into one fluid moment that seems to have no bounds.

The images are lovely, indeed, and serene if only because they are still. Then, suddenly, the silence and our sense of wonder and maybe envy at this journey we know we are about to witness is shattered by the sound of gunfire, and a filmed firefight. The music stops, and Belliveau’s voiceover here speaks of their kidnapping, having an AK47 pointed at his head, and being sure he would die. “My family would never know what had happened to me out here, my body would never be found. And all for what?” This becomes yet another motif: the danger they faced more than a few times as they attempted to find traces of Marco Polo in places far from the present in many ways. Interwoven throughout are serenity and danger, stillness and movement. This theme carries through the entire movie, in much the same pattern.

All this happens before the credits. When the film proper starts, we begin to learn just what was worth risking their lives for.

The voiceover is female, which is at first jolting, unexpected. Where did O’Donnell and Belliveau go? Who is this woman and why is she telling their story? We never get a clear answer, and yet this third voice becomes an unseen narrator of the adventure the two men took, and we follow their path across continents and oceans with her as our guide. When we hear the men’s voice, we know we will see them speaking – when we hear her, we know we will hear more of their story. It was quite effective, and acted as a balance for what was in all other respects a very male-centered story.

Again, simply stupendous still images, some upbeat fitting music, and the female voiceover comes in to create the myth. She takes us far back into history and tells us about Marco Polo’s world. Again using still images, showing us what we assume are pictures of Marco Polo, the book he wrote about his adventures, she begins to connect the patterns from the opening sequence to what the film will be: history/today/adventure/history/today/adventure, ad infinitum. After Marco Polo’s greatness, she continues in her creation myth when she introduces O’Donnell and Belliveau. These men are ordinary, not scholars or historians, not connected to any university or group. This sets up what we need to know – what we have to believe – about the men to make their travel both more exciting, and more accessible. If they can do it, maybe we can, too.

Some classic documentary techniques are utilized.

• The creation of truth by the juxtaposition of voiceover and image – which may or may not actually be the thing or event being discussed at that moment.
• The use of still images to tell the story as the narrator and the two travelers tell it.
• The interview of the two travelers recounting the story as we see it unfold.
• Seemingly unstaged encounters and conversations with people along the way.
• No attempt to hide the camera.

Each of these added truth-value to the film.

One of the more unique elements of this film was the interweaving of past and present, and how this interweaving seemed to erase the boundaries between the two. Marco Polo’s adventure became O’Donnell and Belliveau’s adventure complete with in some cases encountering the very same customs, ruins, and one immense reclining Buddha. It became difficult to determine whose story we were following, and then comes the realization: it is all their stories, and ours as well.

Ultimately the message of this documentary was profound, yet it had less to do with walking through history than it does with looking to the future. Yes, the people these men encountered, and their customs, were exotic and exiting. Yes the landscape was unique, vibrant and at times life-threateningly hazardous. And yes, the ruins and statues Marco Polo saw 700 years before were still there, still touchable, and somehow a link to the past. But as the film comes to a close, the filmmakers step out of the past – both the ancient and the near – and move toward a future that can be just as wondrous.

Their journey comes to an end where it started, in Venice, and the last images we see are of their lives ‘today’ – the present of the film itself. O’Donnell is an artist living in Queens, and we see his work in vibrant color. Belliveau is married with children, and also still in Queens. Is all life, then, and all journeys, a circle? Do we end up where we started? And if so, have we become changed by our adventures on the way to that point?

Belliveau believes this is true. His last words sum up what this film both exposes, and holds close to its heart: As still images and short moments of video dissolve one into the next across the screen, Belliveau says, “I would say that most of the world is full of good people. There’s a lot more good people on the planet than bad.” The images keep coming. Closeups of men and women, boys and girls, all beautiful in a way that is beyond words – their faces shine. A trick of photography? Something we have learned along the way that makes this so? Or reality shining through?

O’Donnell’s voice fades in: “It’s easy to hate someone you never met. Travel is the enemy of bigotry.” And as we get now quick video clips of both of them encircled by those they met along the way – from monks to soldiers, from small boys to half-naked warriors, and from women in multi-colored veils to ancient men in shorts – all of them in essence embodying this message, O’Donnell says “Get out there. Meet them. They’re good.”

Indeed, this becomes the lesson.

To stay in one place is death to innovation, wonder, joy, and understanding. But to return home having experienced the world is a gift not only to ourselves, but to all those we touch with our stories.

This documentary was remarkable in many ways, not least because of the essential simplicity of the pieces that went into the creation of its whole. Simple, still images, interviews with only the two travelers, some video footage taken along the way, and three uniquely different storytellers whose voices filled in the blanks and wove history into the present. Somehow the film became more than the sum of its parts, and at the end we are left with a feeling of hope.

For information on this film, see imdb. For information about Marco Polo, see here.

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