Phil’s Camino • The Amazing Journey of Phil Volker & Annie O’Neil

How a Stage Four Cancer Patient Realized His Dream in the Face of Adversity

    icon Nov 03, 2016
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One of the significantly inspirational films showing at this year’s Riverside Saginaw Film Festival is Phil’s Camino, a remarkable documentary created by director Annie O’Neil that explores the journey of Phil Volker, a man living with Stage 4 Cancer who dreams of walking the 500-mile spiritual pilgrimage Camino de Santiago across Spain.  Unable to make the trip, he opts for the next best thing and builds his own Camino in the forest behind his home on Vashon Island.

This remarkable journey of hope, acceptance, and freedom has won top awards at 15 out of 20 film festivals since its release and has officially been submitted for Oscar consideration at this year’s 89th Academy Awards.

A husband, father, veteran, outdoorsman, and Catholic, although Phil’s dream of walking the Camino becomes unattainable due to weekly chemo treatments, it doesn’t stop him from walking into the vistas of his own pilgrimage. Crafting a path through wood and pasture on his 10-acre plot of land on Vashon Island, Seattle, Phil re-creates the Camino path in his own backyard; and after each .88 km lap plots his progress on a Camino map. As he measures his daily steps toward the end destination of Santiago, Phil finds that the rhythm of walking presents healing in a way he has never experienced, nor anticipated.

For producer Annie O’Neil, she had worked on her own original series and also co-produced a documentary film entitled Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, and in 2014 was also finishing her first book Everyday Camino with Annie, when she was contacted by Volker.   “I felt like the luckiest person in the world to have met Phil Volker,” relates Annie when asked how she was first drawn to the subject of her documentary. “Phil and his wife saw that feature documentary that I co-produced and was featured in, and was so moved by it that first his wife Rebecca and then Phil both wrote to me. Phil said: ‘I don’t know what Rebecca told you about my field here, but I have 10 acres and have made my own Camino in my backyard and walk it every day that I don’t have treatment.’

“His letter was so beautiful that I was hooked,” continues Annie. “Here’s a guy with a diagnosis that for many people sounds like ‘the end’; only instead of giving up and grieving about what he could have done with the rest of his life and maligning an inability to fulfill his dream, he said, ‘No, I’m going to do this no matter what it looks like’; and he let himself have what he wanted by visualizing the Camino as he thought it was going to look.  That to me is so important for all of us because we can get so hooked on the notion of our life looking a certain way that we miss all the gifts that are being given to us all the time. Instead of postponing his dream, he said ‘No, I’m living it now and here’s what it looks like’.  And to me what he achieved by doing that is so much more than a trip to Spain.”

Phil invited Annie to come walk with him and two weeks after receiving his letter, she booked a flight to Seattle to visit Phil and walk his Camino.  “The word ‘Camino’ translates into ‘pathway,” explains Annie, “so in Spain a Camino can be on a sidewalk in the middle of a big city or a pathway into a deserted forest and everything in-between; and when I first saw Phil’s Camino I was amazed how it went around his fields and pastures and into a wooded part of his property; so in that sense, it looks the same as the actual Camino. Basically, he created a path.”

Amazingly, since Annie’s film came out and people have seen or heard about it, over 200 people have also made the pilgrimage to Vashon Island to also go and walk with Phil. “People don’t even meet 200 people when they go walk the actual Camino in Spain,” laughs Annie; “and the interesting thing is that if you talk to people who have walked the actual Camino, mostly what they talk about is the beatify of the people they meet more than the landscape.  Phil has achieved that in his backyard. He’s had someone from China come and walk with him and people from Texas, Northern California, here there and everywhere, come walk with him, which I find truly amazing and inspirational.”

As Annie went through the process of constructing this documentary, did her thoughts or perspectives evolve about the different ways people face challenges and conflicts they encounter in the world? “I would have to say yes,” she reflects. “Seeing Phil so fearlessly face his challenge made a difference in my life and changed me. Certainly I’ve been amazed at how many people come up to me at screenings of the film and say they have cancer and want to use their own path; but I’m a better person for having met Phil Volker. The idea of being able to take a no and focus upon building a positive antipode to it is transformational.”

“Back when I met Phil I was working on my book, Everyday Camino with Annie, which basically is a daily meditation that loosely follows my own journey on the Camino de Santiago; and I was kind of stuck until I met Phil.  My purpose for writing the book was to basically say Caminos are every day and they just don’t happen it Spain; and Phil said to me: ‘I was writing the textbook and he was building the lab.”

Although Annie created a video series for kids back in the 1990s and had experience co-producing her earlier documentary, Phil’s Camino is the first time she’s made an outing as a director making all the choices. “When I met Phil I got it,” she continues. “We’re kindred spirits and I saw the importance of his message from what he was doing. He felt he was just a guy walking in the mud; and I when I told him his journey would make a good film, he asked if I was crazy. He didn’t get the message at first, but I did. It’s funny how life is like that sometimes.”

As for actual challenging component of creating Phil’s Camino, while Annie says that fundraising continues to be a constant but boring challenge, technically her biggest challenge was figuring out how to give a history of the Camino de Santiago in a way that could be woven into the story as a lesson. “I didn’t want to put up a card for film goers to read, so instead we got Phil to make a map of his Camino and then I took that map and asked a graphic artist to animate the map by putting to all together, which in one fell swoop of 20-seconds connected everything I was struggling to do in a beautiful & seamless way.”

As for what Annie hopes audiences will take away from Phil’s Camino that distinguishes it from other documentaries, she focuses on that often elusive force known as inspiration. “I think this is a very hopeful film and my desire is for people who have received a diagnosis like Phil to find their own possibilities in life that they may not have realized,” she states. “My dream is that people feel empowered to do something more with their life.”

“I get the most beautiful emails from people and feel blessed that this film has been so strongly acknowledged by my peers, juries, and audiences at the festivals that it has been shown. It isn’t accurate to say that all this positive attention blows my mind, because it blows my heart and tells me that people get the message the way I got the message from Phil. Peoples’ lives have changed after seeing this film, and one can’t ask for anything more from art.”

“Even though I’m living in California now and have lived in New York in the past, I was born in Chicago and am a Midwest girl at heart,” concludes Annie. “I’m glad to be part of the Riverside Film Festival and hope to see as many people as possible. Phil’s message is as important today as it was when I first met him and there are thousands of people that receive a diagnosis of cancer each day that I hope will benefit from what this film has to say.  If anybody wants to reach out they can contact us at”

For those have the tremendous privilege of taking part in Phil's journey, it is evident that he does not allow circumstances to define him; but views cancer as a catalyst to a life of rich moments in the tension of suffering and gratitude. 

Phil’s Camino captures Phil’s story from Vashon to Spain and back again. His determined character, life of simplicity, and joy in the everyday presents a story of what it means to live vibrantly in the face of adversity. 

Phil’s Camino will be shown on Friday, November 11th at 5 PM and Saturday, November 12th at 8 PM at Hoyt Library.

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