Tanzania Transit is a beautifully open, subtly structured glimpse at modern life in sub-Saharan East Africa. Captivating road movie by Jaroen van Velzen follows three people finding their way.
From Murder on the Orient Express to the Darjeeling Limited, there’s something really spectacular about train travel in movies; they are a site for tight shots and close encounters. More than just their unusual allocation of space and the constant, thematizing sense of forward motion, we love to watch train transit because it’s something we rarely do ourselves, and it connotes a nostalgic, vestigial past, or at least a slightly alternate present.
In his new film, Tanzania Transit, Jeroen van Velzen takes all these filmic hallmarks of train travel and applies them to the documentary format, delivering a glimpse at life in present-day Tanzania.
From the very beginning, it becomes clear that the technology of the long-distance train – still used regularly today yet somehow outmoded – is the starting point in a conversation all about the cultural changes taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, and the people riding through them.
The film, Tanzania Transit, like so many “place piece” documentaries I’ve seen at Tribeca this year, revolves mainly around three subjects, who occupy the same space independent of one another.
Van Velzen uses this technique with particular success – the self-contained nature of the train gives no need to explain the subjects’ symbolic connection to one another, and the film can instead focus on their differences. This helps twofold when you consider the necessity of fighting the still-present notion that Africa is a singular cultural area, and all Africans are somehow alike. In his microcosmic look at a community in transit, Van Velzen makes ample use of the differences between the commuters.
In Tanzania Transit, Van Velzen immerses us in the microcosm of the train without taking any of the characters or events as necessarily typically Tanzanian.
The first subject portrayed is actually of two passengers, a grandfather, and grandson, who are Maasai, a semi-nomadic ethnic group with a distinct language and style of dress separate from that of the more urban Swahili. It is the grandfather’s first time on a train, as he travels with the rest of the passengers from Dar es Salaam (on the eastern coast of Tanzania) back home, to Maasai territory in the rural north.
His grandson is now a permanent resident in Dar, and has begun the fraught task of making himself something of a social media ‘influencer.’ On a smartphone, he shows his grandfather high-production clips of himself in a music video, where he is introduced as Maasai Prince. “How did you put yourself in this TV?” his grandfather asks, delighted. The Maasai Prince says that he paid three million shillings (the equivalent of about $1,300 USD) to have the video recorded. “Why must you waste money like this? You should have gone home and bought cows,” his elder responds.
This ongoing dynamic in the Maasai family persists, interrupted with equally composed glimpses into the lives of two other passengers, a priest from Dar es Salaam, who travels through the cars selling his book and offering to cure the sick; and a Kenyan woman who is trying to start a new life as a bartender. Both of these subjects have a habit finding themselves in surreal situations that accentuate or completely topple our modern myths about African daily life.
The priest, who is dressed always in sunglasses and a militaristic suit in national Tanzanian colors, often leads entire train cars in Christian chants and offers his phone number constantly so people might text him for prayers. In one instance, he tells the story of his religious redemption when, after living a life a treachery and hedonism, he was kissed by a witch, and had a tusk growing out of his mouth until a preacher (on television) cured him.
The narrative in is delivered to us beautifully, placidly, but there’s the sense of is deliberateness as well.
The Kenyan woman gets a moment to tell her story, though I wish I had seen more of her life aboard the train, even if it isn’t quite as self-aggrandizing as a traveling preacher’s. She tells a friend sharing her sleeping compartment that she was sold into a marriage at a very young age, with a man who abused and assaulted her; she is now in her third attempt to completely remake her life. “I’ve forgiven, but I can’t forget,” she says of her parent’s betrayal in officiating the marriage. As she tells the story, she begins to look slyly away from her listener, into Van Velzen’s camera. The devastating narrative is delivered to us, beautifully, placidly, but there’s the sense of is deliberateness as well.
Names are never given in Tanzania Transit, but long sequences reflect the intimacy Van Velzen had with his subjects – a relationship that clearly connotes a level of comfort and understanding. Like any good documentary, the film is presented to us with deliberate shots that seem to always be positioned correctly for the given (unscripted) moment, yet somehow avoid feeling intrusive. The reality behind such a veneer is much harder to see, but clearly, Van Velzen, who was born in the Netherlands but spent much of his young adult life in Kenya, India and South Africa, had an interest in immersing us in a world we’re probably not very familiar with. That he is able to do this without taking any of the characters or events as necessarily typically Tanzanian – highlighting ethnic minorities such as the Maasai, for instance, and showcasing the persistent discrimination they face – this is the greatest achievement of the film.
In a road movie, the journey naturally outweighs the destination, so it’s hardly disappointing to find out that Tanzania Transit never really “arrives” anywhere. The closest we get to a sense of finality is when the train is delayed after a cow crosses the tracks and is hit. The conductor, coming off the locomotive, tells us that the cow had saved them – the rails were supposedly broken only a few yards beyond where the train was stopped. As men fix the tracks, the train remains stagnant for a night, and the passengers go out into the bush to barbeque their roadkill. There is a heartwarming, absolving sense of community, the relief of many persons coming together as a people.