By: Briege McGarrity (Senior Writer, IFQ)
“In Transit” is legendary documentarian Albert Maysles’s final film before his passing at age 88. Appealing to audiences and critics alike, “In Transit” won the Special Jury Mention award at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. This collaborative effort captures a rare glimpse of railroad travelers on Amtrak’s cross country train, The Empire Builder, which travels from Seattle to Chicago with plenty of stops in between.
The scope of the footage and expert camera works is a testament to a committed production crew: Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usai, and Ben Wu. Viewers get treated to stunning scenery like the glorious snow covered mountains of Montana and the oil fields of North Dakota, as well as visuals of the train as it hurtles and winds through the mountainous regions of America. But it’s the commentary from a wide array of colorful personalities that makes this project a success. Maysles (“Grey Gardens,” “Gimme Shelter”) once again proves himself to be an insightful filmmaker. Although we never see him, we feel his presence as his subjects share their stories, hopes and regrets – a nod to his interview skills and empathy.
The film opens with the musings of a young man from Mississippi, who abruptly quit his job because of a “know it all” boss and decides to jump on a train bound for Seattle. We meet an elderly lady from Ohio who is on her way home from a visit with the daughter she gave up custody of 47 years before. We become acquainted with a determined single mom with four bi-racial children travelling back home to make amends with her fractured family. Grappling with the past, she reveals she was once the “black sheep,” and plans to explain why she left home at such a young age. Then there are oil riggers separated from their families and a North Dakota man hoping to reconnect with his high school sweetheart in Indiana.
Other poignant moments include a plucky, heavily pregnant woman on her way to Minneapolis to get away from an abusive relationship. Touchingly, an aging ex-military man comforts her and then we learn he has a heart condition and severe PTSD, and may be on his last train ride. The affable conductor recalls seeing the train pass through his home town and of one day working on it. A perceptive black man weighs in on the privileges of the middle class and postulates that young people who feel they are at a cross roads often have rich parents. He pointedly asks “if you are at a crossroads, why are you snowboarding as opposed to hustling? A young black man gets emotional as he listens to an older man (who knew Martin Luther King) as he recalls his days during the civil rights movement.
To pass the time in a confined space, passengers play cards, snuggle, chat, befriend strangers, hang out in the night bar, nap, and of course use their smartphones and laptops. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is often provided by talented passengers singing and playing guitars and banjos.
Overall “In Transit” is an interesting watch, a fascination study of a cross section of people just travelling through. The scenes, all shot on video, are well threaded giving the film much needed cohesion. Editor Lynn True handles the meandering train imagery, roaming camera work and commentary with precision. The train itself is a character, a vessel for possibilities. It seems journeying on The Empire Builder can give even the most lofty of drifters an opportunity to contemplate life, weigh up options, elevate thinking, and gain the courage needed to be the captain of your own ship.