We Are The World – Train Station

Hassan Muthalib bought a ticket, then bought into this record-breaking film.

Who would have thought that a heady, entertaining story set around a train station would also take us into the realms of philosophy (specifically that of ontology), epistemology and aesthetics? The 97-minute feature film, ‘Train Station’, also gives truth and manifests Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero archetype in his book titled ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ in 1949, with its seminal theory of The Hero’s Journey, which has become the basis of innumerable Hollywood screenplays.

In ‘Train Station’, 40 directors in 25 countries offer 43 actors the lead actor role of ‘The Person in Brown’ and get them to take the physical – and mental – journey of a hero. For the actors – and only secondarily for the audience – they get to experience something powerful that is brought about by the extraordinary art of the cinema. Their experience, however, is not with the roles that they play, but is only experienced by them in the completed film when they see themselves ‘morphing’ with every other actor through the aesthetics of film editing. In doing so, ‘Train Station’ demolishes the auteur theory, proving that editing is truly – the second – and final directing of a film story.

‘Train Station’ thereby takes us back into the early history of cinema, and into the theories of editing, specifically that of Sergei Eisenstein and his theories of montage (French for editing). Eisenstein’s theory is notable for its reference to the Marxist-Hegelian principle of thesis (one idea) being in collision with anti-thesis (an opposing idea), bringing about a synthesis (a new idea). It is a theory that was refuted by the film theorist, Andre Bazin, in the 1940s, who said that cinema, in reality, is dependent on the mise-en-scene. Today, however, both ideas can be fully found in the grammar and language of world cinema. ‘Train Station’ is thoroughly dependent on the theory of montage that takes the audience on a roller-coaster ride, literally forcing them to suspend their disbelief by making them participate in the film’s story.

The Beginnings
‘Train Station’ is a CollabFeature conceived and executed by Detroit based directors, Marty Shea and Ian Bonner, as a viable example of modern-day, Internet-driven collaboration. In 1998, Shea graduated with an advertising major, a love of film… and a realisation that it was an overcrowded field. “There’s so much talent out there,” he thought. So he floated an odd idea: why not have many filmmakers combine to make one film, with each one shooting a part of it? The CollabFeature concept first began with 25 film directors who came together to make a single movie called ‘The Owner’, a story about a backpack that gets handed from one person to another and travels all around the world. It was a Guinness record-setting initiative, with Shea as producer and Bonner the screenwriter. ‘Train Station’ has since broken that record, with the most number of directors working around the world on one film, an international collaboration working exclusively online.

‘Train Station’ is a tapestry of stories and styles that promotes cross-cultural understanding with multiple voices of filmmakers from diverse nations, all based on the simple premise: “What will happen if ….?” No matter who we are, where we come from or what our pursuits may be, we are essentially the same the world over. As the production notes put it, the result “unites cultures and breaks language barriers to tell a single story about choice, consequence and infinite possibilities.” The filmmakers write and direct one segment of a bigger story in their own country. By pooling talents and resources, each work helps to create a gestalt that is bigger than the sum of the parts, so as to reach a global audience.

‘Train Station’ has since picked up a number of prizes at international film festivals, including best feature film awards at festivals such as Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival 2016, Miami Independent Film Festival 2016, Calcutta International Cult Film Festival 2016 and Pune Independent Film Festival 2016. They have also been awarded honourable mentions and prizes at events like the 9th Film Fest Kosova and Kansas International Film Festival in 2016.

The Person in Brown: Existence and the Existent
The film characters are young and old (including children), featuring men and women, those who are straight and gay, with many different nationalities. They make choices along the journey, triggering a dramatic and sudden shift to a new cast, city and film director to pick up the thread, moving the narrative to the next level.

The character of The Person in Brown ‘exists’ in the film story. He is then made ‘existent’ by the choices that he makes and the actions arising thereof. It is what in Islamic theology is spoken of as wujud (existence) and mawujud (existent). God brought Man into existence, but it is only by being existent (through his actions) that a man may be ‘considered’ or judged. In a screenplay, a plot-driven story is created through cause and effect, but a character-driven story comes about through what happens in the mind of the character that subsequently leads to the various choices that he makes. It is all about fate (plot) versus choice (character). In this, ‘Train Station’ is intriguing because it also poses questions as to whether everything is predetermined, or whether we are free to chart our own destiny.

The mark of a good film is the effect it has on the audience. It raises questions about ontology (the reason for being) and takes us into epistemology (what and how we know about what we know), as well as the aesthetics of film narrative. This includes how feelings, emotions, situations and the environment contribute to the totality of the human being. A satisfying narrative, thus, is about the journey and not the destination. If ‘Train Station’ can make the audience reflect upon the choices they have made in their own lives, then it would have truly succeeded in its narrative and stylistics.

The Person in Brown is at times a man, a woman and a kid in various guises. However, The Person in Brown is, in reality, the viewer who becomes a voyeur. He is given a chance to see himself as if in a flashback (or perhaps in a flashforward) to see how the choices in his life have decided the paths he has ultimately taken, to be what he is now, or even in that of future decisions. As is shown in one segment in the film, would there be a ‘closure’ – the end of the journey – or will there be ‘disclosure’ – that is, discovering more about himself and his reason for being – as well as coming to terms with what he truly knows or does not know?

The Narrative
The film opens in Kenya, Africa. A man has to decide if he should wait for a late train that might never come, or go home and miss the train he has hoped to take. The man opts to leave. We are next in Brazil. The Person in Brown leaves a train station, only to meet a man who says he can change his life. And so begins a jumble of different takes. On the journey, the Person in Brown then becomes a young man, then another older man, then a child, a woman, with a gay lover, a life partner, friends and total strangers. Multiple scenarios abound. A woman in a Detroit diner accuses a man of stalking her; she stands in the street flinging a suitcase around after getting locked out of her home; a car swerves to miss her, causing it to crash; now she is a man walking on a golf course, and a black comedy ensues; a man finds a large sum of money in the crashed car belonging to someone called Valentin.

The story then goes in a different direction: a golf ball injury and the finding of a wallet. Other segments are of a couple having a baby, followed by a pregnancy that is horrifying; a surreal sequence of a man unjustly accused of a crime; a chance meeting on a bus; the discovery of an indiscretion that leads to a killing; a carnival barker tries to convince the Person in Brown to play a game of chance in a segment with a clue as to the subtext of the film: Closure or Disclosure. Two children (one of them the Person in Brown) go on a trip in their imagination within a miniature train station. A grim plot involves a black market kidney exchange and the death of an innocent woman. Ready or not, you are thrown pell-mell into a chaotic world of images that tell…

The Malaysian Segment
The Malaysian segment was initially written by Zalee Isa was attracted to the project in 2011, after hearing about CollabFeature’s earlier work, ‘The Owner’. However, he had to pull out of directing the project himself due to scheduling conflicts, and handed over the directorial reins to Tony Pietra Arjuna. Zalee, an alumni of Akademi Filem Malaysia, is one of the pioneers of the digital indie revolution that began in 2000. He was the editor and technical director of the first digital feature film, ‘Lips to Lips’, directed by Amir Muhammad. Tony had earlier collaborated on the five-directors, one-feature film that is ‘Cuak’, in 2014.

Zalee’s Person in Brown is now a woman (Anrie Too). After a traumatic incident that concluded the earlier segment, she is by a riverbank, trying to dump two black bags filled with some bloody body parts. A passing man (Michael Chen) stops to help her. Then he asks her out for coffee. She obliges, but soon gets into a panic when two People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA) guards approach their table. The scene reminds me of a similar one in ‘Lips to Lips’, when two policemen are in conversation, but are blissfully unaware of a dead body being loaded into a car boot behind them!

We (Filmmakers) are the World
The first film in the world was a short. Today, the short film has become ubiquitous. Advances in digital technology have led to a burgeoning of filmmakers all over the world. Short films do not have a mainstream audience (unless they are a part of international film festivals). Making a feature film requires a major crew and resources, and is expensive not only to make but also to market and distribute. Malaysia’s early digital indie scene flourished because of a collaboration between established filmmakers, amateurs and students. Films like ‘The Owner’, ‘Train Station’ and ‘Cuak’ are heralding a new approach to feature filmmaking: the collaboration feature film, or CollabFeature. Writers, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers and executive producers come together to make films, merging many voices into one. Cinema brings them together. They truly are the world.

The film was recently screened in GSC International Screens in Malaysia, the only nation to have theatrically released the film. You can rent or purchase the film on Amazon or VimeoFind out more about CollabFeature here.

We previously wrote about Tony Pietra Arjuna’s ‘Cuak’ here and here, and have interviewed another director of ‘Train Station’, Juliane Block, back in 2008 for her debut feature film, ‘Emperor’.

Featured image credit: Wallpapers Craft

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