Backpacker Movie Review: A Map for Saturday

A Map for Saturday is a fantastic documentary on the life-altering effects of long-term travel.

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A while back, I bookmarked the film’s website and figured I’d order the DVD at some point. A few months later, I unexpectedly received an e-mail from the film’s producer and director, Rhode Island-native Brook Silva-Bragga, who noticed that I too happened to be a fellow Rhode Islander. There’s a strange, unspoken kinship between Rhode Islanders; more so I believe, than most states. It’s like being part of a private club that so few (it is a rather small state after all) are part of.

After a brief correspondence, he kindly offered to send a copy of the film. I, rather unkindly, took about two months to review it. Sorry, Brook. To be honest, I wanted to be sure that my review did the film justice. So, after watching it a second time, here goes …

The Production

A Map for Saturday is really well done. That is to say that it’s professionally produced, but not so slick that it feels like a vertigo-inducing MTV pseudo-reality show. It’s evident that Brook took great pains to edit and distill the film down to only its most pertinent scenes – nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary.

To be sure, it’s not a film about location-specific travel per se. There are a few bits where Brook discusses his thoughts on certain regions in depth, but it’s not like Globe Trekker or No Reservations. It’s more experience- and people-specific, with a focus on the emotional and personal growth travelers experience when thrown into a perpetually changing day-to-day life.

Brook’s congenial voice over provides a very listenable complement to the visuals, ensuring you feel completely in tune with what’s on his mind throughout the film.

The Content

The opening sequence shows Brook awaking on the day he tells his employers that he’s taking the following year off. It depicts their (expected) reactions, as well as Brook’s lack of fulfillment with his day-to-day life. His pre-trip lifestyle parallels mine in many ways: cushy desk job, morning lattes and donning designer jeans for walks in the public park. In a word: yuppie (no offense, Brooke, but c’mon – $100 haircuts! =) ). I’m not going to lie: like Brook, I enjoy my lifestyle on some superficial level too, but it’s grown increasingly dissatisfying. And I’m sure that my fellow cubicle/desk jockeys will sympathize with him.

With little fanfare, Brook waves a teary goodbye to his family and is quickly off to Australia. Once there, he’s immediately forced to adapt to the inevitable feelings of loneliness that accompany all solo travelers. He interviews a handful of folks who all suggest the same remedy: you simply have to step out of your shell and learn to interact with strangers. Unless you want to spend your entire trip talking to yourself and zoning out with your iPod to Justin Timberlake’s latest single, you don’t have much of a choice.

One of the backpackers in the film discusses the idea that people are interested primarily in where you’re from, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. It’s an inevitable common bond among all travelers. The concept of “What do you do (for work)?” – the de facto question which unfortunately seems to define all Westerners – is irrelevant. You don’t have a job – you’re a traveler. And, by that fact alone, you’re part of a subculture defined by personal experience, rather than the placard on your office door.

For me, one of the most shocking (or perhaps not) things that Brook discovers is how few Americans he meets while traveling. With a Royal Caribbean ad glorifying shopping and all manner of consumerism playing in the background, Brook sums up typical American views on travel: two weeks of lobster claw oasis in a fifty-two week cubicle desert. The entire segment that follows is one that I’d like to personally extract as an educational tool for all the travel-naysayers out there (unsupportive family and friends of would-be travelers, I’m looking at you). Of all the travelers he meets on his year-long journey, only two are Americans traveling long term. Two. Of all the hostels he stays in and all the people he meets along the way, I find that incredibly disheartening. For me, it’s a sad statement on how parochial and insular so many Americans have become.

Through a series of heartwarming and heartbreaking friendships and fleeting love affairs, it’s clear that Brook’s adjusting to never-ending life on the road is a hard-fought battle. Different locations, different languages, different friends and lovers seemingly every week. Everything is in constant flux and it’s at times difficult to feel attached to any one place, person, or thing at all. Simply put: nothing is permanent. But once you make peace with that and accept it, you can move on. In that sense, travel becomes a microcosm of love, friendship, and life in general. The evolution and dissolution of relationships and experiences are distilled not into years, but days or weeks.

(Not So) Constructive Criticism

If I could make one minor critique, it’s that I wish the film were longer. I’m no professional producer or director, so there’s probably a reason that it isn’t. I think the single disc would work well for the casual HBO-documentary crowd or say, my Mom. Someone who can watch it and think, “Hm … that’d be fun to do”. And move on with their life.

But honestly, I think Brook could’ve stretched this out into a multi-disc set. For the rest of the backpacking world – myself included – I think the film could’ve delved deeper into the perpetual traveler’s lifestyle. I imagine there were many other experiences during Brook’s one-year trip that didn’t make it into 90 minutes of video.

Final Thoughts

Watching A Map for Saturday came at a good time for me. Lately, for no discernible reason, I’ve been questioning my decision to leave more and more. Maybe it’s because the first eight months of this year seemed to completely evaporate (it’s September already?) and the end of 2008 – when I’m planning to leave – is that much closer. It’s that much more to think about, which is putting a subconscious pressure on me that this is really going to happen. And in the face of that, staying in my job and my apartment is easier and more comfortable. On the heels of these feelings of cold feet, the film gave me a much-needed kick in the arse.

All in all, I loved the film. And I’d recommend it to anyone contemplating long-term travel. It’s by no means easy, but the film demonstrates that it could very well be one of the most redeeming personal sacrifices of your life. My favorite part of the film was seeing how long term travel affected the cast in the Cast Updates section on the DVD, which further underscores the value of travel. Not one of the travelers in the film admits to regretting their decision to leave. Not a single person.

Lastly, my biggest take away from A Map for Saturday comes in the final minutes. Reflecting on his return to the non-traveler’s lifestyle, Brook notes: “A normal life really doesn’t seem that attractive anymore. I can’t imagine not traveling again. I can’t imagine going back to a real job.”

My biggest hope is that, upon returning from my travels, I’ll have changed for the better. I look forward to feeling more confident, more self-reliant, more curious and patient, with a better outlook on life, and countless personal experiences that, for the rest of my life, will indelibly change and color how I see the world for the better. But what if I get exactly what I wish for?

Will I appreciate my life and my hometown more when I return to “normal” life? Or will it just seem like an inescapable ball and chain?

Is my trip just something to “get out of my system” or am I opening the proverbial can of worms? Will I come back home much more addicted to travel?

I have a string of my own personal “Saturdays” planned. And for now, it looks like that’s the only way I’m going to find out.

Founding Editor
  1. I have heard nothing but incredible things about this film. Your review only confirms even more so what I have been told. Thanks for the great information!

  2. Hey Mike,

    No worries on the delayed post, it turned out to be one of the more thoughtful reviews I’ve read anywhere. Did I send you the disk with DVD extras? That pads it out to well over 2 hours.

    As for worrying about coming back…it will be hard. But if the worst thing about an experience is it makes everything else pale in comparison, that’s no reason to avoid it.

    My goodness you’re going to have fun!


  3. No problem at all, Brook. It’s of course well deserved.

    I did get the DVD disc with the extras, so with everything on the disc included it was over two hours. I guess I just meant that I wished the movie itself were longer. Of course, because I’m so addicted to travel, I’d probably b*tch about an eight hour movie not being long enough! =P It’s perhaps more a criticism of me than the movie.

    I’m certainly not looking to forward to coming back, but … “All good things must come to an end …” and all that, right?

    Thanks for the kinds words and encouragement!

  4. Mike,

    Just received an email with a link to your review. Came at a perfect time as I am leaving this saturday for one of my annual overseas trips. This year I am heading to South America for nine weeks, last year was S.East Asia and the year prior was Russia & the Baltics.

    By the time I return home I will have chalked up the 50th Country on my list….So, be forewarned, once you’ve started it IS like drug…only more addicting! :o) Traveling long term rather than a week or two is something you will crave and you’ll find yourself making a way to do it on an annual basis. (Amazing how cutting out a daily run to Starbucks alone can put up to $800 in your travel fund!)

    Anyway, loved the review and can’t wait to see the DVD when I return to the States.


  5. I’m sorry, this film was self-important and awful. Watch ahole travelers meet up with other ahole travelers to discuss the mutual-masturbation.

    Braga says little to nothing about the cultures he engages or the places he visits and a lot about how other (mostly well-to-do Europeans) travelers interact with eachother.

    If you travel, meet the locals. This is some summer-camp style BS that makes genuine wanders cringe.

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