Legendary documentarian and Direct Cinema luminary Albert Maysles passed away in March this year, leaving two films finished but as-yet unreleased. Iris, his profile of fashion icon Iris Apfel (and a film seemingly akin to his iconic Grey Gardens), has recently been released in cinemas in the United States, whilst his final film, In Transit, has gone the festival route, premiering at Tribeca, where it received a Special Jury Mention in the World Documentary section of the festival’s program. In Transit is a collaborative effort; Maysles directed the film alongside Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui and Ben Wu, and the multitude of narrative strands and cameras at work showcasing a slyly extensive production for what is ultimately a hyper-intimate work.
The film opens with some explanatory title cards about the Empire Builder, a cross-country train in America (specifically cross-Northern) that goes both ways from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, the journey taking (in full) around 72 hours. The film is set up merely as an exploration of why people travel the Empire Builder, the first people we see on screen discuss their respective needs to escape Montana, though this focus shifts once the film finds a narrative throughline – a woman on board is pregnant and four days overdue. The train employees talk it over in their break room at one of the stops, though their conversation draws less from stress or fear than amusing real-time anecdote, with one of them saying “I have hot water and a towel, we can do this.” Using this woman’s pregnancy as a jumping point, In Transit finds its most potent moments of poignancy attached to the idea of family; parents and parental figures, and the idea of influence over the lives of others transcends a simple exploratory documentary about travel.
In something of a break from the tenets of Direct Cinema, Maysles and Co. have painted a non-linear portrait, chopping and changing from train to train, though they never appear on-screen or ask questions on-camera. Having filmed In Transit over the course of a few months, their footage stems from a variety of train trips and collection of passengers, and the fact that they filmed passengers going from both directions means that the film lacks a defining and regionally specific idea of escape. Lynn True edited the film as well as co-directing it, and she has done a marvelous job in crafting arcs of both character and thematic thrust. One of the more impressive and enduring elements to In Transit is in how we are introduced to people early on, following them merely as passengers interacting with one another, only to swing back to them later for a talking head interview that alters our perception of them. These people quietly bare their souls to one another and the camera lens, divulging secrets and personal truths to those they’ve never met before. It’s a bracing thing, to suddenly be aware of the hardships faced by the people on the Empire Builder, whether domestic abuse, financial turmoil or absent fathers. The film also touches on the hope and prosperity attached to the oil fields in North Dakota, a weight and contextually relevant topic the directors could have just focused on, making something of a companion piece to Jesse Moss’ startling The Overnighters. Instead, it forms part of the narrative patchwork, In Transit an unassuming and gentle overview of life itself.
It’s not all interview footage, though, with some interesting landscape imagery peppered throughout to keep the audience aware of the vast natural diversity of America (a line about the good and bad parts of Montana hammers this home), as well as to reflect some things said by those on board; the idea of having to wait a few more days to arrive is played off against a shot of the train arriving at a station and waiting there, and at one point a young Chinese woman talks about wanting to show her future children nature more often that she has been able to, with the filmmakers then cutting to the snow-covered mountains and trees. In this respect David Usui’s background in production for the Discovery Channel and filmmaking for Vice does come in handy.1
Though there’s definitely the potential for the film to stray into something of an emotionally charged infomercial for Amtrak and the Empire Builder, the filmmakers temper this through the integral focus on real human stories, even those of the employees themselves. Maysles’ swansong is moving, unpretentious and wholly endearing, with fingerprints of the restraint and skill of a master documentarian all over it.