Railway Sleepers: An Interview with Sompot Chidgasornpongse
Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s Railway Sleepers screens on 27th August as part of DocHouse’s On the Line season of railway documentaries. Sompot has worked as assistant director to Apichatpong Weerasethakul alongside his studies at LA’s legendary CalArts institute, before directing his own film, Railway Sleepers, and his structural and poetic debut film pays a debt to both of these experiences.
A rapturous, rhythmic portrait of Thailand’s historic railway system and the different types of people that inhabit it, Sompot observes patiently and poetically whilst passengers share small talk and weightier thoughts, as well as songs, meals and sleep cycles. Moving along the carriages of this self-contained ecosystem, he tunes into the sensorial quality of the journey as much as that which can be observed, teasing out a history both sensed and seen.
We spoke to him about his attachment to Thailand’s railway, its historical importance, and the many meanings it holds for the country and its people.
I READ THAT IT TOOK MANY YEARS TO MAKE THIS FILM. WHAT WAS THE ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT, AND HOW DID IT CHANGE AND DEVELOP ALONG THE WAY?
The origin of the project began in 2008 when I studied at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). It was supposed to be the thesis film for my MFA. However, whilst working on it I realised that the film had potential to be a much longer piece. I ended up just submitting part of the film to my thesis committee (Thom Andersen, James Benning, and Adele Horne), telling them that I intended to develop it further. Luckily, they understood and agreed with my decision as they felt the film should indeed be longer.
At first, I thought the film would be 3-5 hours long, more like an installation piece. After graduation, I came back to Thailand and continued to work on it, shooting more footage and spending a lot of time editing it. It was a long process to arrange, and re-arrange, all of the snippets of life I had gathered throughout the years. Since the film doesn’t have a concrete story line, there were many possibilities in how the film could be shaped. I also found new endings every year. This final version is, I believe, the seventh possible ending.
WHAT MEANINGS DOES THE RAILWAY HOLD IN THAILAND'S HISTORY AND CULTURE, OR WHAT SYMBOLIC FUNCTION DOES IT SERVE? WHY ARE TRAINS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
The railway was used to centralise the power of the king, so he could reign over the entire country, and especially the remote areas. The train was also the symbol of modernity for Thailand. We used trains to show other countries that we are not uncivilised, and to deliver goods to other parts of the country, bringing about growth in our economy.
However, the train’s primary function was a political one. France and England were trying to colonise the country, and the railway was the way to send out our troops to the remote areas. Before the railway’s construction, it would take months to get to the north, or to the northeast. But after, it took only a few days. Thailand was the only country in southeast Asia that wasn’t officially colonised. The ironic part of this is that we used trains to protect our country from the westerners, but needed them to help us build the same trains that enable us to do this.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE STRUCTURE OF THE FILM, THE WAY IT MOVES FLUIDLY AND RYTHMICALLY BETWEEN SEQUENCES, BUT ALSO THROUGH THE CARRIAGES OF THE TRAIN AND THE CLASSES OF THE PASSENGERS?
Time is the main experience when you travel by train. Unlike planes, which feel more like warping from one place to another, you can really feel the presence of time on trains. So I use time as the main linear thread for the film. The film moves from day to evening to night, and to morning, day and night again.
Also, the film is structured from the 3 classes on Thai trains. The 3rd class is the cheapest and without air-conditioning. The 2nd has adjustable seats that can turn into beds, and has air-conditioning. The 1st class is the private room, and is the most expensive one, costing as much as a plane ticket.
Geographically, the film also seems to travel from the north to the south of Thailand, though this is not strictly true, as I do shift around the footage to create something more like an imaginary route.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MOVE THE FILM OUT OF A STRAIGHT OBSERVATIONAL DOCUMENTARY MODE AND INTO SOMETHING MORE MYSTERIOUS, SUBTLY THROUGHOUT AND THEN MORE EXPLICITLY THROUGH THE CONVERSATION WITH THE CHARACTER TOWARDS THE END?
When you reach the 1st class carriage of the train, you’re alone. This forces you to observe your own self, and the space surrounding you. For me, the ending is more like I’m talking to the train itself in the form of another passenger. It’s the same feeling when you are with your friend at night in your room, and you start to talk about the past, and about life. The train shares its story and its history with me, and I share mine with the train, speaking through the engineer.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON THIS TITLE, WHICH SEEMS TO REFER TO MANY THINGS AT ONCE - THE CARRIAGES PEOPLE SLEEP IN DURING OVERNIGHT TRAVEL, THE BLOCKS THAT SUPPORT THE RAILS ON THE TRACK, MAYBE EVEN THE SENSATION OF DREAMING OR TIME-TRAVELLING WHILST RIDING ON A TRAIN? OR SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY?
The film was originally called “Are We There Yet?” I was fascinated by young children’s questions when they travel with adults. And the most common question is "Are We There Yet?" My first focus for the film was to document kids traveling with their parents, but the film expanded to cover many other things. So I wanted a new title that could convey the other aspects of the film. The train used to be our main transportation. It was the country’s spine, just like the blocks that support the rails. However, Thailand’s trains seems to be frozen in time, so the word ‘sleepers’ is perfect. The film is also full of people sleeping too. I like how the phase “Railway Sleepers” can be both very literal and poetic at the same time. I guess people view trains the same way.
YOU HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL AS WELL AS MAKING THIS FILM, I BELIEVE. WHAT WAS HIS ROLE IN THE PRODUCTION, IF ANY? WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE WORKING WITH HIM AND HAS HE INFORMED YOUR PRACTICE AS A FILMMAKER?
Apichatpong helped me financially in the beginning of the production. Later, I would show him my rough cuts and he would give me comments. But mostly he let me be. He wanted to make sure that I had as much freedom as possible. He insisted that this is my film, not his film, and I should make it the way I want to make it. Working with him has taught me a lot in ways that I can’t even begin to express. He paved many new paths for Thai filmmakers. He showed us that there are many other ways films can be. I would say that he inspires me in many ways. Not just in his work, but his way of life too.
THINKING ABOUT THE DOCUMENTARIES IN THIS DOCHOUSE SEASON, AS WELL AS MANY FICTION FEATURES THAT TAKE PLACE INSIDE TRAIN COMPARTMENTS, WHAT IS IT ABOUT TRAINS AND TRAIN JOURNEYS THAT ATTRACT SO MANY FILMMAKERS, DO YOU THINK? WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE FILM ABOUT A TRAIN?
I guess the train has always been a close friend with cinema since the very beginning. The Lumieres’ The Arrival of a Train for example. So the long, fascinating historical aspect is there to begin with. Also trains bring people together - strangers, families and friends. Being on a train forces them to stay in the same area for a long time, and without the ability to easily move around, or leave the space, something is bound to happen. Trains also take you to many interesting landscapes, which can raise social awareness while functioning as a spectacle at the same time. The moving images seen through the rectangular frame of the train’s windows resonates with our experience of cinema.
There are many films shot on trains that I love, but what came to mind right away is Abbas Kiarostami’s short in Tickets. It’s a fiction though, not documentary. Kiarostami did an amazing job telling a story of a brief encounter between strangers (and semi-strangers) within the moving vehicle. It’s so beautifully shot and everything seems to flow so effortlessly, but yet very precisely. I’m not sure how he did it.
Words by Matt Turner