South Africa Train Video

The plan for South Africa was to follow up on With the Nomads with further patient observational documentaries. And I had some great subjects, with great access: Pentecostal church groups speaking in tongues on Melville Koppies, hospice patients both brave and frightened telling me what it was like to know they would die soon, with their tough-minded, dedicated and expert nurses giving their side of the story. I got some good footage, but nothing that I could make anything out of that you could call a documentary, in the end. I realised what a gift that desert landscape had been.

But I think some of that good footage works as uninformative art. I’ve already posted Induna the Street Guard. Now here’s a more ambitious one. In April 2008 I took the train from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and a few days later I took it back. It takes about 24 hours each way. I went for the full second-class no-bed experience, and apart from being freezing at night it was one of the most positive experiences I had in South Africa. My interviews were terrible, but the shots out of the window were interesting, I thought.

I’ve always loved watching the world out of a train window: I’ve got a yet-to-be-posted Super 8 epic from the 1990s that has a sequence about this, and that’s also what The Other Side of Silence (North London Line) is about. On the train across the Karoo I was thinking about how a train window edits the world like a movie. You get wide shots rapidly followed by close-ups. You get jarring montages. You get to see the intimate, private parts of people’s lives and environments: back gardens, uncurtained windows, the uncared-for corners of towns. And, on this train, unexplained and unpredictable stops in the middle of nowhere. The longest tracking shot ever. On this trip, there was something about sometimes moving smoothly through the astonishingly grand, Romantic, Tolkienesque landscape, sometimes trying to keep the camera framed on some evanescent distant view while the carriage rattled and bounced around under my tripod.

I finished this last year. I think this is pretty much it for now.