Like a psychopomp, the conductor welcomes passengers onto Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the last great American railway route. Stretching across desolate prairies, mountains, and snowy wastes, the train carries nearly half a million passengers annually from Chicago in the east to Seattle and Portland in the northwest. There is much silence and time for contemplation during the train’s trek across the great American Nothingness. During its three day journey friendships, acquaintances, and even makeshift families spring up among the passengers.
It is on these people that the documentary IN TRANSIT is focused. The final feature by Albert Maysles, one of the only documentarians who can be accurately described as “legendary,” it utilizes the unobtrusive techniques he helped pioneer—the exclusive use of hand-held cameras, the strict reliance on natural lighting, inconspicuous sound equipment—to capture a stirring cross-section of humanity locked in a temporary purgatory.
In one car an overdue pregnant woman traveling to meet her family in Minneapolis connects with an ex-Marine with PTSD who dutifully captures the world with his camera. In another a young Chinese immigrant stares out a window at the endless mountains: “I’m so small. The nature is so big.”
While a single mother of four steels herself for a long-overdue reunion with her estranged family in Wolf Point, Montana, an elderly woman returns from her first meeting in forty-seven years with the daughter she put up for adoption decades ago after her husband threatened to hunt them down after he was released from prison on charges of domestic abuse. As a Native man lets the vastness of his ancestral homeland clear his mind as he tries to figure out the future of his relationship with his partner, a black man who grew up without parents breaks down in tears and is comforted by an elder who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet all of these people are united by hope: the hope for a future; the hope of a new job; the hope borne from starting over as a stranger in a strange land.
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. But for people who live and die thousands of miles away from open water, a train barreling endlessly through the night works just as well. Thank God we had Albert Maysles to prove it.