© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Documentary Giant Albert Maysles' Last Film, 'In Transit,' Is Still In Limbo

A college student and her mother head west on the Empire Builder in Albert Maysles' <em>In Transit</em>.
Courtesy of Maysles Documentary Center
A college student and her mother head west on the Empire Builder in Albert Maysles' In Transit.

The last film by documentary giant Albert Maysles gets a rare screening this week in New York. It's called In Transit, and it takes place entirely on the Empire Builder, a train that runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest over three days. Some passengers are heading toward new opportunities, while others are just trying to get away.

One scene features a young man travelling from Mississippi to Seattle. He says, "Nobody at work knew I was fixing to just pack up all my stuff and leave. ... They actually thought I was going to be at work last night. ... Sometimes you just gotta do it. You know, what do you have really to lose?"

In Transit caps a long and distinguished career for Albert Maysles. The documentary was finished more than two years ago, just before the award-winning director died at the age of 88. Since then, Maysles' last movie has been difficult to see because of questions about who owns the rights. (Audiences in New York can see it on two screens this week, including the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem.)

Rebekah Maysles, the filmmaker's daughter, says, "He had always thought that it would be wonderful to make a film about people who were on these trains — meet them, and then follow them off the train. It was a place where you could have access to all different people with all different stories."

But raising the money for such an ambitious project proved challenging — even for a man who helped invent the documentary film.

Albert and his brother David Maysles were pioneers of what they called "direct cinema": stories without narrators that turned ordinary people into larger-than-life figures. Several of their films are considered classics of the genre, including 1969's Salesman, about a door-to-door Bible salesmen, and 1975's Grey Gardens, about two eccentric socialites living in a crumbling mansion.

Maylses had been thinking about making In Transit since the 1960s. He called it "my dream film" during an interview at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2009, when he was 82 years old. He said, "As any of you would know who have travelled on a train — even on a bus, and sometimes on a plane — meeting strangers, and strangers become friends. That is my goal always in what I do."

Strangers become friends in <em>In Transit</em>.
/ Courtesy of Maysles Documentary Center
Courtesy of Maysles Documentary Center
Strangers become friends in In Transit.

Finally, four years ago, Maysles found a willing partner for his train movie. The cable channel Al-Jazeera America put up $600,000 for Maysles and his team to produce an hour-long TV special. The filmmaker and his crew settled on the Empire Builder, and producer Erika Dilday says they shot more than 400 hours of material as the trains rolled across Indian reservations, oil fields and "this barren winter country." She says, "That beauty that he wanted to catch of people in just this moment in time, who lay themselves out there for you — I think it's magic."

Maysles doesn't ask lot of questions in the film. Lynn True, In Transit's co-director and editor, says, "For him, it was about observing and listening, and allowing things to unfold as they will. You know, he was probably the least nervous of all of us that we would get a film out of this."

In the end, Maysles and his crew collected enough material to make a longer, feature-length documentary. The filmmaker approved the final cut just a few days before he died, in the spring of 2015. Producer Erika Dilday says she was working with Al-Jazeera America to release the film in theaters. "They were starting to put together a big PR campaign," she says. "And that's when everything folded."

Al-Jazeera America abruptly shut down in early 2016. In Transit played some film festivals, but it was never broadcast on TV and never got a wider release. Dilday says she approached the network about buying the rights to the film through the Maysles Documentary Center, which she runs, but Al-Jazeera has never responded.

"I think the film should be here," she says. "This film belongs with the Maysles family and the Maysles Center."

Al-Jazeera did not respond to requests for comment. The final cut of In Transit remains at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, which hopes to screen it again when this week's run is over — but nothing is scheduled.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.