Film Review: Using Composition to Paint a Portrait of Tanzania in Transit

‘Tanzania Transit’ may be one of my favorite films of 2018. Aside from the bonus of this documentary gifting me my first onscreen feel of Tanzania, it’s a train movie somewhat in the mold of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer‘.

Of course, ‘Tanzania Transit’ is not a dystopian quasi-satirical thriller like Joon-ho’s film but they share in common the insightful commentary on social strata viewed through the lens of class, religion and gender. It’s an all too familiar picture marked by poverty, prejudice and sexism.

Director Jeroen van Velzen paints a compelling picture of the East African country within the confined setting of mostly railway carriages and his shot composition is truly terrific; a lot of frames within frames highlighting his vérité approach as he invites us to observe the characters he feels will adequately encapsulate the stories of everyday Tanzania.

Tanzania is in transit. But the destination isn’t as important as the journey. The commute presents a confluence of varied perspectives and influences. For some, they are being given their first tour of Tanzania, like the aged Maasai man traveling with his grandson from Dar es Salaam in the section that feels like the train’s overcrowded economy class. Isaya and William, they are called respectively.

Isaya is the first character we meet, as he takes in the arid Tanzania countryside as the train bobbles on. He remarks about how the visuals of the sprawling Tanzanian landscape racing by are a feast for his eyes, which are battling cataracts. His heart longs for the fresh cow milk and simplicity of rural existence in the bush.

William is a performer of sorts and is grinding towards his idea of success. We catch a piece of a music video he is in and we hear a girl sing to her “Maasai prince”. Though committed to urban life, he remains true to his Maasai heritage as evidenced by Shuka always seems to don without a hint of compromise.

Rukia, a character in the film.

We also meet Rukia, a boisterous middle-aged single mother, who travels in the middle tier of the train. There is a resolute feminist undertone to Rukia and it doesn’t take long to understand why. She’s enlightened and hardened by multiple betrayals by loved ones and wary of men. She has captivating and heartbreaking stories for the young women she shares quarters with. Her advice to them is perhaps summed up in an anthem we hear them blurting out early on: “my tough queens, move forward” they sing.

I was expecting a politician to show up when we made our way to the highest strata of this microcosm of Tanzania society. We instead get a preacher. Close enough. The lines are blurred. This assured preacher is Peter, a former gang leader. He has this faux military getup with the Tanzania flag emblazoned on it. We glimpse some of the luxuries that set him apart from the other travelers; privacy, balanced breakfasts, gold plated crosses, among others.

Like the other characters, Peter has his hustle; peddling his thaumaturgy and salvation. He descends from the top of the pyramid to offer blessings, healing and his book for sale to the masses in musty carriages. For some of these people, faith is an adequate placeholder for healthcare and a screen to their poverty, at least till the Messiah comes. It’s hard to blame them. For others, beer and cheerful tales about sex on trains are enough to numb their reality, even if for a moment.

Tanznia Transit, Peter
Peter, a character in the film.

Like some of the most earnest stories about Africa, it’s hard to escape the decay. As we stare out of the train windows, the arid scenery feels like a representation of the passenger’s existence and they can do nothing but watch and hope their portion changes. Whilst there are times it feels like this society operates with a sense of hope and resolve, I can’t shake the sense the people are just traveling resigned into the unknown.

Some of the strongest shots are of Tanzanians slumbering in uncomfortable positions in the carriages – weary, vulnerable but also at peace and content. Van Velzen and his cinematographer, Niels van Koevorden, are at home serving us a number of medium quasi-voyeuristic shots that sometimes come off as uncomfortably suffocating.

The individual stories in ‘Tanzania Transit’ hit all the right beats to make it an accurate depiction of contemporary Africa. These are stories I’ve heard before from people I used to see in the four-hour bus rides to boarding school. Even the snapshot of prejudice against Maasai has eerie echoes of the rhetoric that follows the nomadic Fulani in West Africa. Van Velzen allows his film to address this point. Indeed, he somewhat turns this particular negative beat on its head in the denouement to forge warm moments of togetherness that put an exclamation mark of hope on this account.

‘Tanzania Transit’ is a strong piece of cinema. I really was surprised at how gorgeous it is. Its purposeful editing is crucial to letting the audience immerse itself in Tanzanian society, even if for about 80 minutes. He allows the people to define the tone. Their perspective determines our emotions and whilst like ‘Snowpiercer’, there is the sense this train has been in transit for decades, who are we to fault the passengers for feeling a better life awaits them at their unknown destination.

Photos: Tanzania Transit Facebook

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