Albert Maysles, the director behind Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, and dozens of other movies that span seven decades, compared watching a documentary to taking a “serendipitous journey, a journey which is much more akin to the life experience. As you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”
Perhaps it is fitting then that one of the last documentaries Maysles worked on before he passed away in 2014 explored both literal and figurative journeys.
In Transit, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight (Thursday), follows an assortment of passengers and employees on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, a three-day train route through the northwestern region of the U.S.
A Native American man looking to find clarity as he hits a romantic crossroads, a 21-year-old looking to make his fortune in the oil fields of North Dakota, and a pregnant young woman fleeing a bad relationship—who is three days overdue, no less—are all part of the uniquely American mélange of subjects in this incredibly natural yet gripping film.
While In Transit was a final project for Maysles, who managed to be on two of the tree Empire Builder train rides they filmed, it was the first made by the Maysles Documentary Center, a nonprofit that he established in West Harlem in 2006 to begin educational filmmaking programs.
Hearing the In Transit crew talk about Maysles and the production process makes it clear that this documentary is a love letter to both his aesthetic and values.
Maysles had long-desired to do a documentary about train travel, said his colleagues at the Maysles Documentary Center.
“I think Albert recognized the special quality to the space of the train. On the one hand, you’re looking out the window, you’re maybe in a more self-reflective space. On another hand, you’re in a social space where you’re forced to engage with other people,” said Nelson Walker, one of the filmmakers on the In Transit team.
“The combination of those two things puts people in a position where they are a little more ready to share deeper things about their lives and their experiences.”
However, Maysles’ initially envisioned making a film about railways around the globe, rather than focus on the U.S.
Something so precious would have been lost if they had gone the more cosmopolitan route. Even choosing another Amtrak line could have produced a very different movie.
Amtrak trains running along the Northeast Corridor are often filled with suburban college students or businessmen (I say this from personal experience).
In contrast, the Empire Builder goes from Chicago to Portland and Seattle over three days, covering terrain that is not easily accessible by other forms of public transportation, especially during the winter months when In Transit was filmed in late 2013 and early 2014.
As a result, it attracts passengers from an array of economic and social backgrounds who really have no other way to travel through this region. “Most people had a reason to be there. It wasn’t as if they were afraid of flying or for tourism purposes,” said Walker.
As the name also suggests, the Empire Builder also encapsulates the mystique of westward expansion, which is very much alive in its own way today. “The Empire Builder stuck out immediately in large part because there were so many people seeking fame, fortune, family, getting back to their roots, starting over. It was pretty undeniable early on this idea of the American Dream and different manifestations were coloring the process,” said Lynn True, another one of the filmmakers behind In Transit.
In Transit is American in the best way possible, both in explicit and implicit discussions. Race, class, ethnicity, and family come to the fore in natural ways that criss-cross and overlap without necessarily any formal introductions or even names given to the subjects.
“Single mother. Four kids. Biracial. Multiple babies’ dads. You know, divorced. All these labels the world throws at you,” says Malia, a young mother who has taken her kids to visit her family in Montana.
We see different scenes of Malia lovingly playing with her son when he loses his shoes and shepherding them off the train and into the black night of the rural midwest.
In another scene, the movie cuts to a middle-aged black man sitting across the table at the cafe cart with another black man who appears to be two to three decades his senior. The latter is instructing the former on how to be a good father.
“They [his children] must see in you the integrity to keep going, even in the face of obstacles,” he tells the younger man, who then picks up his ringing cellphone. “Hey baby, I can’t believe it. I’m sitting here with an elder who met Martin Luther King. This is a beautiful experience for me.”
This pairing is one of the sets of subjects revisited throughout In Transit. “I am a man who grew up without a father or mother,” the younger man says in a later scene as he breaks down in tears. “I am tired of hurting.” The older man silently takes his hand in both of his across the table. The two had never met prior to this trip.
While In Transit is whittled to 75 minutes from some 400 hours of footage, it is amazing the crew encountered people with such extraordinary life circumstances over just three trips.
“In putting it all together, I was really skeptical we were going to get what we needed in the trips we had. We didn’t have room for a lot of error,” said Erika Dilday, the Executive Director at the Maysles Documentary Center, who wanted to research and possibly pre-select passengers to hedge their bets.
Maysles, she said, never lost faith: “Albert kept saying ‘You don’t need to do it. It will happen.’”
Organically, the crew captured passengers whose lives could have been their own subjects of a documentary.
Only a few minutes are devoted to a woman who hadn’t seen her daughter in 47 years after putting her up for adoption. At 16, she wed a man who never provided for her and her seven kids and was physically abusive.
“I had to hunt. I had a rifle,” she says. “I was pregnant. He took a lamp made out of cast iron and tried to beat me. I said, ‘If you touch me again, I will shoot you.’ I felt my kids would be safer with other people. That’s how I lost them.”
With stories like these, no wonder the overdue pregnant woman hardly steals the dramatic limelight.
That was purposeful on the filmmakers’ part. “We were going for everyday life, everyday stories,” says Nelson. “Can you think of something more dramatic than a woman, three-days overdue? We could have made it more dramatic, but that wasn’t reality.”
In Transit presents snapshots of the most ordinary situations—and yet the intimacy is harrowing.
While curled up together in coach seats, a college-aged daughter tells her mother that she worries about her when she’s away at school because “it’s just the two of us.” Her mothers admits, “I know that’s the burden.”
We know nothing of their history, and they never appear again, but those precious minutes provide so much emotion.
The film also evokes the power of the western frontier that drew pioneers in the 19th Century, but it does so without an artificial romanticization.
Instead, it lets the nature speak for itself with shots of the landscape and testimony from various passengers about their desire to go west.
“There’s something really therapeutic about getting back to the plains. It sounds a little trite, but the thing that were bugging you completely vanish,” says a Native American man, who proceeds to discuss the intimate reasons for his trek on the Empire Builder.
“My partner and I were having a gut-wrenching conversation about the future of our relationship, which may or may not exist when I get back to Portland, but my choice was to get on this train and summon the therapy I’ve always summoned when I get on this train.”
“I decided to follow my dream. I decided to make more money. I decided to start my own life, get my own little routine,” a dough-faced young man tells the camera. “A 21-year-old kid with no college education. I’m going to stack that money away for all its worth. I’m going to invest. As soon as I’m done in North Dakota, I’ll be set. I figure seven years in the oil field. I’ll be set for life.”
Oil in many ways is its own unspoken motif. So many passengers on the Empire Builder were traveling because of oil, not only to work in the fields but to take clerical jobs in boomtowns or visit boyfriends and husbands who were out there toiling away.
“Oil almost sits underneath the surface of the film, the way it sits underneath the surface of the ground,” said Walker. They purposefully skirted any political or environmental debates about oil.
“We knew it was going to send the film in a direction we didn’t want to head in,” said True. We really wanted to focus on the human aspect.”
This guiding principle behind In Transit is an homage not only to Maysles’ approach to filmmaking, but his approach to life. “He loved to love people,” Dilday fondly recalled. “He would say, ‘How do you love thy neighbor, if you don’t get to know thy neighbor.’ Albert’s vision puts you to the fact that you’re just a step away from getting to know people and finding that common ground.”
In Transit screens tonight (Thursday), 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 3:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2:00 p.m.; Friday 4/24, 6:45 p.m.; Sunday 4/26, 6:30 p.m. Screening details here.