Railway Sleepers

“Traveling in Siamese Time and Space”

Rachel Harrison (University of London)

Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s documentary film Railway Sleepers takes its viewers on a journey through Siam/Thailand that criss-crosses both time and space. Shot between 2008 and 2016 on “every operating railway route” in the country, the film opens with the words of the Royal Order of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, r. 1868-1910) inaugurating Siam’s first train line, in 1893. “This grand aspiration has finally come to fruition,” he announces. “I give my blessing to the train company to gain and to profit, to forever prosper, and to enrich our Siam with many benefits.” We do not hear his voice, of course; his semi-divine royal presence is disembodied. Instead the viewer is invited to read his words as they roll past on screen against a backdrop of diegetic sound: a markedly more mundane soundtrack of common chatter, likely recorded inside a busy railway carriage. Writing about this film in October 2020, it is hard not to read this work against the backdrop of the burgeoning protests currently taking place across the country, reflecting a growing resistance to the divinity of the monarch and the feudal structures that uphold the status quo.

Whilst proclaiming the introduction of the railway to Siam as a mark of the modernization and Westernization of the nation, Sompot’s cinematography proceeds to show us something rather different: a single line track, with slow-running, rickety train carriages winding their way through the glorious rural landscapes of northern Thailand. The largest part of Sompot’s footage tracks the experiences of third-class travelers, making their way, night and day, on epic journeys through the countryside of the North, Northeast and South of Thailand. The narrative is pieced together along class lines, in keeping with the classes of railway carriages themselves. Our journey commences at the bottom of the social order, in third class, hot and sticky, without air conditioning. Reflecting Thailand’s wider social structure, the longest sections of the film deal with the on-board activities of the ordinary poor: children on a school trip, chatting and writing in their notebooks, idly making patterns with their hands, gathering around a friend who has lost a tooth; adults buying and selling food, chewing on a snack, drifting into slumber, waking for a communal sing-song and a laugh. Two army recruits (likely conscripts, in Thailand’s long-standing military system of conscription) make space to sit on the floor in the corridor by the toilet; another quietly, patiently struggles with the latches on the toilet window.

A shorter section in the latter half of the film moves us up into second class, where the sleeper train has pull-out beds for a long, overnight trip. The sense of community in the previous car gives way to the creature comforts of bunks ranged along the railway corridor. A young man takes out a violin, not to play a song that might have been more happily shared in the lower-class carriages, but to polish and place back in its case. His neat style of dress and his possession of the instrument itself are markers of a middle-class affluence, befitting the airconditioned sleeper carriage. So too, the signs of Western (farang) tourists, their oversized bodies clambering in typical ungainly fashion into the upper bunks with their socks still on their feet.

A man polishes his violin on the train in Railway Sleepers

Sompot invites us to complete our journey with Railway Sleepers with a first-class experience – individual sleeping compartments, each with their own hand basin and faded curtains. The occupant is a farang, but this time Sompot jolts us into the realization that not everything is what it seems: the casually dressed, young Western man speaking fluent Thai to the off-screen interviewer in this sequence is no common tourist. Performing the part of a late nineteenth century British technical advisor to the early construction of the State Railway of Thailand, the actor explains that the train does not run at night. The audience feels the dissonance, because the sky is dark outside the carriage window as he speaks. We have gone back in time, or at least partially so, the disorientation a hallmark feature of the filmmaking style of Sompot’s renowned mentor Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who is also the producer of Railway Sleepers). The historical advisor relates his personal experiences in the present tense, of surveying the land for railway lines, travelling as he does by boat, elephant, buffalo, horse, and caravan to every region of the country. He alludes to the context of building the Khorat line amidst competition from French colonial advances in neighboring Indochina, reiterating the need for “civilization” and modernization to rebuff the threat of colonization. A black and white photograph appears on screen, illustrating the class relations that lay behind this project: British and German advisors surround the Siamese monarch and his entourage while Siamese coolies comprise the labor that carried out the construction.

In terms of both form and content, Railway Sleepers reflects the deep-rooted socio-political structures, topping and tailing its narrative with reference to the Bangkok elite and to their enduring (and some would say auto- or crypto-colonizing) engagement with colonial forms of power and its mechanisms. While the trainline inaugurated by Rama V forged a path of national progress, it also served the purpose of “unifying” the different ethnic regions of the country under the centralizing powers of the monarchy, a project achieved by an intense collaboration with the colonial West. In late 2020, as street demonstrators in Thailand defy the rulings of a state of emergency to voice their rage against feudalism and the oppressive nature of military rule, it remains to be seen how much this project of power can remain intact.

“Duration and Felt Time”

Jasmine Nadua Trice (UCLA)

Two twentieth-century instruments of time, the railroad and the cinema, have long shared an intimate connection, through a shared ability to transport viewers and riders across different times and spaces (see Faden or Kirby on this subject). This kinship has been revived in recent years, though the films that depict it offer a different take. While the industrial railroad upended perceptions of time through its speed, many current depictions use train travel as a meditation on slowness. Contemporary durational cinema, such as J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014) and Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan (2019), has made use of the journey motif in order to depict the felt experience of movement through space. The Iron Ministry offers a sensory ethnography of the railroad in China, filmed over three years. Meanwhile, No Data Plan combines observation with personal reflection during a US cross-country Amtrak trip, a journey taken not for nostalgia but by necessity, due to Revereza’s undocumented status. Both films document the railroad as an embodied experience of time, one particularly suited to the expansive, durational capacities of digital video.

Filmmaker Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s Railway Sleepers similarly focuses on fragments of everyday life unfolding across two days, two nights, and one morning: the time it takes to traverse Thailand south to north. The film becomes a temporal measure of national space documented over a period of ten years and reflects the director’s shifting perspective on his home country after returning from studying abroad. In this respect, rather than offering the third-person perspective of observational cinema, the camera’s gaze is reflexive and specific. Sompot attends to the protagonists’ gestures and idiosyncrasies as well as the changing light at different stages of the journey.

Sompot made the film after his time studying at CalArts. He has described how being abroad made him consider how little he knew of his own country, his role in it, and its place in the wider world. He wanted to use the sensory techniques that his professor James Benning had taught him in a course called “Listening and Seeing,” a class grounded in the quiet observation of a space, changing throughout the duration of their activity—for example, sometimes the class would spend time contemplating California’s infrastructural landscapes of wind farms and oil rigs.

When Sompot returned to Thailand, he began to experiment with shooting on the railway. Not knowing how he would construct the film, he recorded 140 hours of video over several years, capturing pieces of train life, watching and logging the footage daily. The film began to take shape as a reflexive portrait of an artist discovering his country through chance encounters. He met a woman seeking her runaway daughter in the sprawling megalopolis of Bangkok, with no leads, whom he connected with a women’s organization. A railway aficionado he met later stayed in his home on a trip to Bangkok. When Sompot missed his connecting train to his hotel due to his enjoyment filming a group of school children, their teacher invited him to continue to their destination, a field trip to a coal mining museum. These encounters occurred offscreen—they are not the content of the film itself, but the narrative of its making, as told in extratextual interviews discussing the work. These contextual accounts describe the project as one of chance encounter and affective connections taking shape across a diverse country.

In this way, the cinematic portrait of the railway is not an emblem of state-driven progress, as the historical epigraph describes. The 1890 epigraph describes the rail project as a “grand aspiration come to fruition,” the fulfillment of a national “wish” that would facilitate governance, administration, and economy for Siam. Throughout the film, archival photographs depict this history, but the film intersperses them with images of foreign and domestic passengers, engaged in the mundane activities of travel like waiting and passing time. The camera lingers on small details that comprise the everyday: a soldier adjusting his hair in a bathroom mirror, a passenger touching a dragonfly that has settled on a window, groups of schoolchildren on a field trip. Passengers read, play games, sing songs, and drink. They wait for the journey to take its course.

Railway Sleepers trades the literal forward momentum of the railway with the undulating drift of non-narrative structure. The film disassembles state cartographies and national timelines, trading them for fragments of embodied life. This embodiment becomes literal in the film’s final passage, where a passenger is revealed to be an English engineer who had worked on the railroad during the colonial period. Over a shot of the first-class car’s empty corridor, Sompot converses with this anachronistic figure, a relic who is at once ghost and flesh, spectral and ordinary, dressed in 21st-century travel clothes. He speaks of his work on the rail, but also his childhood memories. It is an affective encounter with colonial history like the other encounters that comprise the film, chance meetings between strangers that reframe historical chronologies into something more intimate, infused with feeling.

Sompot has described Railway Sleepers as an experience of felt time: “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.” He grew up in Samut Prakan, a provincial town outside of Bangkok, where Suvarnabhumi Airport is located. As he describes, it is called the “gate city,” as it is where foreigners entered the country by sea. Now, its colonial era waterways have become a hub of global transport, carrying artists like him overseas and back again, where they look upon their home countries with a fresh, mobile gaze, grounded in an affective desire for connection.

This essay references an interview with Sompot Chidgasornpongse conducted by Philippa Lovatt and recorded by Jasmine Nadua Trice in Bangkok, February 22, 2020. Full interview available at: https://www.aseac-interviews.org/home

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