The symbolism in In Transit, the final documentary from the late, famed documentarian Albert Maysles, is right there on the surface – real people in a train traveling across the country in hopes of finding something better at the other end of the line. But just because the symbolism is easy to see, doesn’t mean it’s not also touching and resonant. No one moves from one place to another in hopes of finding something worse at the end of the journey. Everyone moves to find a better life. The Empire Builder—the Amtrak line on which Maysles and his co-directors (Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu, and David Usui) found and filmed these people—is a single vein in the body of the American experience, but it is a vein in which the life-blood proves particularly close to the surface.
For three years, I rode an Amtrak line, the Pacific Surfliner, every week between San Diego and Los Angeles. From time to time, I found myself in conversation with people on a leg of their own journey. More often, I simply watched people from a distance and wondered what put them on that train that day. In In Transit, we get to meet many people like the people I used to watch. They talk to each other and to the camera as the snow-swept landscapes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Oregon blur by outside the windows of the train. Each story is different, touched by particular incidents both grave and gracious. Each person hopes for different, better things when they exit the train.
As the documentary clicked on down the line, I was struck by how quickly Maysles and company got to the heart of each passenger’s story. There’s masterful editing at work here (by Lynn True), because the film never feels rushed, but each narrative comes to a head almost immediately. I was struck also by how close in proximity each of these people are too each other, though only occasionally did any of them talk to each other. How often are we next to people living lives as packed with love and despair as our own? Every minute. I was struck finally by how quickly each person passed out of the camera’s focus. Their train stops come, and they exit, full lives, compelling narratives lost to the rhythms of an ever-moving train.
There is something quintessentially American about the passengers’ stories as well and not just the landscape that frames them. The Empire Builder passes through the booming North Dakotan oil fields and the small towns that dot the northern American landscape. The promise of a better life achieved economically centers almost every conversation. The passengers are of all races and creeds as well. If America is a melting pot, the Empire Builder is a ladle spreading the soup liberally over the North American plains. In one moment, a young, white, female college student gets an earful from a young, black man about the privilege implied in saying one is ‘at a crossroads.’ “‘Crossroads’ means you have time to pick,” he says, “When you’re able to be at a crossroads, your parents are friggin’ loaded.” “It was interesting…” she begins to retort, but he cuts her off. “You can be interesting when you don’t have to worry about sleeping somewhere,” he says, “I can’t be interesting. I have to pay the rent… When I was at a crossroads, I was robbing people for lunch. What you’re doing is going on vacation.”
In truth, the hopes and dreams of the people on the train in In Transit aren’t especially American. Millions of people are on the move around the world right now. Three million Syrians are on in transit currently trying to escape the war in their country and find a better life anywhere else. Over 200 million Chinese citizens move from the country’s rural areas to its cities to work and then back home again annually because they can make more money in the cities and send their kids to better schools. (If you haven’t, you should watch Last Train Home, a riveting documentary about this annual migration.) My wife and I moved from California to Colorado this past summer in hopes of finding a place where we can afford to comfortably raise a family (“comfortably” being the key word in that sentence, we are well aware). Humans move. From before the days of Abraham until today, we always have. We always will. One day, we’ll likely board space caravans and spread among the stars if we believe life could be better “out there.”
We Christians spend a lot of time worrying about where God wants us and what God wants us to do. I’m sure there are times when God has very specific answers to those questions for specific people. But I think more often, God promises, as God did with Abraham, to go with us wherever we go, and our “what to do” is to love the people around us as God first loved them. There’s freedom and urgency in Christ to go into all the world and love it wherever we want to go. Sometimes we have a choice in going; sometimes we do not. Sometimes we have a choice in staying; sometimes we do not. God is with us no matter what. In Transit is a glimpse into the lives of a handful of people “God so loves.” It’s a reminder to love them and to see them as something more than inconveniences as we go on our ways. There is enough life in every person to fill a thousand films, but they’re gone from our lives as quickly as a train barreling down the tracks while we sit at a crossroads.
In Transit is being featured in the 38th annual Denver Film Festival. More information and showtimes can be found here.