As a critic, especially if you cover the festival circuit, befriending filmmakers is both a pleasant matter of course and a recurring cause for minor ethical quandaries. When they release a new film, do you avoid writing about it? And if not, will you be able to remain critical even if you dislike it, potentially severing a friendship?
It’s therefore with some trepidation that I approached Railway Sleepers by Sompot Chidgasornpongse, whom I’d met in 2014 on the set of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, where he was the 1st Assistant Director (since starting out as an intern on The Adventure of Iron Pussy, Sompot has worked on the majority of Apichatpong’s films). He first told me about his film on the ride back from the shoot one day, during a discussion about the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night. He wanted to see the Dardennes’ film to check out how they tackled the structural challenge of narrative repetition, which had now been plaguing him for six years as he struggled to finish his debut feature.
It took him two more years to surmount this challenge. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried going into the screening—the results are marvelous. Through a succession of static shots that almost never leave the inside of a train, Railway Sleepers takes us on a seemingly endless ride across Thailand. The fluid montage and the steady, perpetual pulse of the train running on the tracks engender a viewing experience soothing like few others. Thus lulled, it’s a delight to alternately admire the gorgeous scenery and observe the manifold people and activities that unfold in front of, and seemingly oblivious to, the camera: vendors selling items and foods of all types (fermented pork, anyone?), rambunctious children on a school trip, soldiers carrying guns, groups of women wearing hijabs, saffron-robed monks, commuters, foreign backpackers, and countless more.
Through this accumulation, the train is gradually rendered a societal microcosm. As the film is bookended by sequences that underline the functional and symbolic role of the railway in Thai history, what emerges is not only a portrait of contemporary Thai society, but also a reflection on the country’s current situation. The train simultaneously serves as a symbol for progress and stasis, community and separation, and while the film’s images seem to capture a pervading serenity, there is always the intimation of turbulence simmering just beyond the frame.
I started the film enchanted and left it overcome with melancholy—as the credits rolled, the train kept running, but both the duration of the trip and its eventual destination remained uncertain. At least it brought Sompot to Berlin and it was such a pleasure to sit down with him and resume the conversation we’d started two years ago.
NOTEBOOK: You worked on Railway Sleepers over a period of eight years. How was the idea born? Did you always intend it to be your debut feature?
SOMPOT CHIDGASORNPONGSE: Originally, it was going to be my thesis film at CalArts. I was living in dorms and didn’t have a car, which makes it very hard to get around in California. One time I wanted to go to L.A. to see Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, so I had to take the train. For some reason, when I got on the train, I started to cry. [Laughs] I don’t know why. I must have felt very trapped in the school, because now that I got to leave, I felt free. It was in the evening and the view was so beautiful with the sun going down, it created a magical moment. I wanted to try and record this moment. I had a small camera with me, so I shot a video of the view as the train started moving.
This Mexican boy and his father were sitting opposite me. I didn’t understand them because they were speaking Spanish, but I recognized the situation perfectly. The boy’s body language was very easy to read. I imagined he was asking, “Where are we going? How long till we get there?” Even though I couldn’t understand the language, I felt it was such a universal situation and wondered whether I could capture it on film. That was the first idea, to go back to Thailand and make a structural film. Something like ten family portraits broken up by ten Thai scenes.
NOTEBOOK: When did you decide to expand your focus?
SOMPOT: During the summer break I returned to Thailand and started doing tests with a MiniDV camera. After a while, I realized there were many other really interesting things on the train. It was different from the train in California, which is pretty tame: people just sit there. In Thailand the vibe, the energy is totally different. First of all, the trains are never on time. [Laughs] Then there’s also vendors selling stuff, for example. So many different types of people ride the trains, I saw they could become a metaphor for Thailand, like the train as a small model or replica. I didn’t fully comprehend what it was yet, but I saw there was something there, so I started shooting other things besides families.
NOTEBOOK: You structured the film along two movements: one the one hand, the cycle of the days, on the other, from the cheapest train class to the most expensive. When did this dual structure start emerging?
SOMPOT: I knew the film would be just snippets of life, without following a character in particular, so I needed some kind of thread, something to keep the whole together, otherwise it would be too random. Time offered a linear path a viewer could follow. At least you know that the film is advancing, and it also offers variation.
It was the same with the classes. In Thai trains you have three classes. The third is the cheapest, sometimes it’s even free. Then there’s the second class with air conditioning and adjustable seats. And finally the first class, which is the most expensive. It’s the same price as flying, so not many people are familiar with the first class. Some people who watched the film in Thailand said, “Oh, this is the first time I see the first class!” Since the third class is the most familiar and the first is the least, you keep the secret until the end.
NOTEBOOK: Like in Snowpiercer.
SOMPOT: Yes, exactly! The end reveals a lot in my film, and in Snowpiercer the theme really comes together in the end, so there’s a strong similarity.
NOTEBOOK: Railway Sleepers also ends with a conversation in a private wagon at the head of the train, except here it’s between you and a British engineer from the 19th century. Did you make him up or is he based on a historical figure?
SOMPOT: Through my research I started to see the importance of Thai trains throughout history. I wanted to integrate this into the film, but didn’t know how. I didn’t want it to have a narrator, or texts—these things from conventional documentaries.
Then, about two years ago, I started reading about English engineers who worked for the Thai train system at the very beginning. It gave me the idea for a different type of character: a person who represents the whole history of Thai trains. It has the human element and my film is all about humans. But he’s not Thai, he’s a foreigner, which is perfect because the Thai railway was born to protect our country from invaders, from foreigners: from the British, the French… But somehow, we still had to ask for their help to build the trains. It’s like asking your enemy to help you protect your country. [Laughs] It’s very ironic.
In the end, he’s not based on a real person. I combined all the knowledge from my research into this character. Since throughout the film you don’t follow anyone, or speak to anyone, I liked that at the end, when you finally get to talk to someone, it’s not a real person, it’s a construct, like a train.
NOTEBOOK: And he’s also a supernatural being, a ghost from the past. It was really striking to have this fantastic and conversational scene at the end, when the rest had been an observational documentary. I liked how this switch helped emphasize the film’s metaphorical dimension. Up to that point, it’s very subtle, but the conclusion explicitly invites you to reflect on the symbolic import of what’s come before.
SOMPOT: Right. It’s also interesting because it happens in first class, the secret spot nobody knows about. It’s like you have this secret entity hidden there, which is the history that usually nobody knows. And since first class is the most private space—in third class you can film anywhere, but in first it’s difficult to get access to the cabins—once you get to this very private space, you have no choice but to look inside yourself. That’s also why you hear my voice in that scene.
NOTEBOOK: How much footage did you gather in eight years?
SOMPOT: About 140 hours.
NOTEBOOK: Oh, wow! Did you have a system to help you sort through all this footage?
SOMPOT: What I did was capture everything in still images. I had almost 4,000 tiny pictures. For example, when the guy catches the dragonfly—I captured that frame, so I could remember that moment. Then I rearranged all the little pictures to see which ones could go together. Like storyboarding. If I wanted to use the shot with the dragonfly, I had to find another with the same kind of light. If the train was moving, then in the other shot it also had to be moving. I had all these criteria that I needed to keep consistent, so it took a very long time. But choosing the structure—from day, to evening, to night—really helped, because I could categorize all the images according to time of day.
NOTEBOOK: Were you familiar with J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry while working on your film?
SOMPOT: I had to wait a long time to see it, because there were no screenings here. I saw it maybe a year or two after it came out. Even though it’s also on a train the whole time, the way he approached the structure is quite different. He does a lot of interviewing, it’s less about little moments of life. I think my film is a bit more abstract.
That made me really happy. Not just because my film is different, but also because it made me realize that you can make a different film from a very similar concept, which to me is quite inspiring. Maybe it will inspire other filmmakers to shoot on trains in their own countries.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve been working with Apichatpong for a long time now and he produced Railway Sleepers. What’s he like as a producer?
SOMPOT: He’s the type of producer who let me make an eight-year film! [Laughs] He helped me financially, especially towards the very beginning, giving me money to buy equipment. After that he let me be and would check in every once in a while. I would show him the footage and he’d give comments. If he didn’t like a shot, he would say so. At the same time, he would always end his suggestions with, “But it’s your film. If you’re happy with it, you do it your way.”
One of the reasons I kept working on the film for so long is that Apichatpong and I agreed it needed a stronger ending. I’ve gone through like seven endings over the years. Every time, I still felt it wasn’t strong enough and when I showed it to Apichatpong, he confirmed this.
NOTEBOOK: Although on a formal level, Railway Sleepers doesn’t resemble Apichatpong’s work, I thought that thematically it had strong parallels to both Mysterious Object at Noon, as an itinerant, mosaic portrait of contemporary Thailand, and to Cemetery of Splendour, with the train serving a symbolic role similar to the soldiers’ sleep. Would you agree?
SOMPOT: Yeah, totally. Mysterious Object at Noon wasn’t his thesis film, but he also made it right after his graduation [from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago]. Studying in the U.S. made us miss our own country. I realized I had never really traveled through Thailand by myself and I started wanting to explore places in Thailand. I studied with James Benning, and with him it’s all about landscapes and going to see things. I hadn’t been to see things in my own country at all. I was missing the sun, the landscape. I think Apichatpong and I probably shared this feeling. And also, Thai cinema has never really explored the country, so that’s something we wanted to do.
What you mention about sleep is interesting, because it’s very similar to Cemetery of Splendour in a way I didn’t anticipate. I tried to come up with a new name for the film, because back then it was called Are We There Yet? and it became a joke: I never managed to finish the film, so people started mocking me, like, “Are you there yet? Are you there yet?” [Laughs] I thought, maybe it’s the title! Researching trains, I found this term, “railway sleepers” [i.e. the rectangular supports between the rails on a railroad track]. I didn’t know they were called that. I felt it was so poetic. It can mean many things: it means people who sleep, but also someone who has hidden potential. It has the literal meaning, and a metaphorical meaning.
NOTEBOOK: Absolutely. Also in terms of railway sleepers’ function in providing support and stability to the entire structure, it works as a powerful metaphor for the Thai people in the current system.
SOMPOT: Yes, yes. And there’s nothing you can do as a railway sleeper, you’re stuck. It somehow became the same thing Cemetery of Splendour is exploring, though I hadn’t intended this. I guess it just came out naturally.