Albert Maysles never got to watch his last film with an audience, passing away just a month before “In Transit” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, but simply completing the documentary marked the realization of a long-held dream. Maysles had wanted to shoot a film about passengers on a train for decades, but had trouble finding funding for a documentary whose subjects could only be discovered after shooting began.
Now, the film is finally released — but its future remains uncertain.
“In Transit” played at roughly a dozen film festivals and was being prepped by Al Jazeera America for a theatrical run with the help of sales agent Submarine Deluxe when Al Jazeera’s U.S. arm was abruptly shuttered in 2016, leaving the rights to the film in legal limbo. Part of the problem was that Al Jazeera had agreed to finance a 50-minute documentary for TV, not a feature film, so determining who had the rights to the feature-length version was a legal quandary.
The Maysles Documentary Center has been trying to purchase the rights to the documentary themselves, a more than two-year process that remains unresolved; in the meantime, they’ve been able to arrange for one-week runs at the organization’s own cinema and at New York’s Metrograph, starting on Friday. The team behind the film hopes to introduce the documentary to more audiences in the future, whether through traditional distribution or self-distribution.
These prolonged efforts are only the latest chapter in a project that, decades before its completion, had taken on a mythological quality. “People refer to it as his white whale,” said co-director Lynn True. “It just never came together for a lot of reasons, one being that it’s rather unwieldy just boarding a train and spontaneously meeting people and capturing their stories.”
In 2013, Maysles finally attracted the financial backing of Al Jazeera America, and with the help of co-directors True, David Usui, Nelson Walker and Ben Wu, began interviewing passengers on on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in America, which makes the three-day trip between Seattle and Chicago.
The movie marked the first original production of the Harlem-based Maysles Documentary Center, which has its own 55-seat cinema. That wound up working in its favor — the original contract with Al Jazeera included the right to screen the film at the theater that carried the director’s name, so “In Transit” was always destined to show in at least one theater. (The Metrograph screenings were set up in negotiation between the theater and the film’s producers, not Al Jazeera, which is unaffiliated with the release; the producers declined to comment on the arrangement with the broadcaster, and Al Jazeera did not return requests for comment.)
Shot in the tradition of Direct Cinema, the documentary is made up of a series of interconnected vignettes, where passengers share their fears, hopes and dreams, or simply let the filmmakers capture conversations with friends, family and new acquaintances on the train.
“We just had to board the train cross our fingers that we would find interesting people who would let us film them,” said True. As she and the other filmmakers soon discovered, the simple act of asking where someone is going could be all it took to stumble upon fascinating documentary subjects. The “characters” in the film range from a young woman who opened up about being raised by crackheads to an elderly woman who had just visited a daughter she gave up for adoption 47 years earlier.
Shot during the height of the U.S. oil boom, the filmmakers frequently found workers traveling to and from the oil fields in North Dakota, or wives and partners of these workers, most of whom talked about the challenges of being away from loved ones for extended periods of time.
One of the central figures of the documentary is a pregnant passenger who was already passed her due date upon boarding the train, creating a uniquely stressful situation for the Amtrak crew, which had to monitor her on a daily basis and became something like an extended family. “That was just documentary magic,” said True.
Though Maysles had no way of knowing whether his decades-long ambition of shooting passengers on a train would lead to footage that could be edited into a compelling narrative, he was always drawn to how trains could bring strangers together, according to True. “He loved trains because of this unique ability they had to kind of support these unlikely friendships and interactions,” she said. “It was pretty interesting to me how many of the stories played into Albert’s vision so precisely — this idea that trains afford strangers the opportunity to connect in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily if they were just passing on the street.”
During segments in which single individuals speak directly to the camera, “In Transit” reveals that, regardless of age, gender or background, most people have a natural inclination to show their own vulnerability. “If you give people the chance to really be honest, people are so much more similar than we all give them credit for,” True said.
One of the key components to Maysles approach to documentary filmmaking was to avoid entering any situation with preconceived ideas or any sort of end goal. “He was such a proponent of observing quietly and listening and allowing stories to unfold on their own terms and follow things wherever they led,” True said.
According to Maysles’ daughter Rebekah Maysles, who served as a producer on his 2014 documentary “Iris,” about fashion icon Iris Apfel, one of her father’s original ideas for the film was to follow passengers off the train and continue shooting footage in their homes. As with most of his documentaries, however, formulating a strict plan was not part of the equation. “He didn’t really prepare himself at all,” she said. “I think it worked.”
Maysles wasn’t around to celebrate when “In Transit” won a special mention in the documentary feature category at Tribeca, but more important to Rebekah Maysles was her father’s reaction to seeing the finished film. “He loved it,” she said.
“In Transit” opens Friday, June 23 at the Metrograph and Maysles Documentary Center.