The Trans-Siberian is as storied a railway as any in the world, the 9,289 kilometres of its route between Moscow and Vladivostok both a stark physical reality and a mystique-laden gestalt shaped by a bloody and romantic history, incomparable landscapes, thousands of artistic interpretations and the journeys of innumerable souls. For those who work on the trains, there’s something more – a kind of gravity that draws them in, or a haunting in the oldest sense of the word, the roots of which go back to frequenting a place, to going or bringing home.
Created from the rhythms of the railway itself, the short documentary Sleepers’ Beat by the Russian-Swedish filmmaker Anastasia Kirillova is a mesmerising exploration of the force that the Trans-Siberian exerts on the people who come to it for work. In the clacking and screeching of the wheels on the tracks, the pulsing flashes of landscape out the windows, shaking visions of stations, villages and cities along the way, and the constant rattle of the carriages, Kirillova finds a poetry of place that’s always in motion.
This contradictory quality of the trains – the being within a space that itself moves through many places – feels directly tied to the power that, one after another, the people working aboard ascribe to the railway. One woman tells of taking the job with her husband when she was 25 because the salary was good and they wanted to see Russia: 24 years later and ‘We never left,’ she says. Another woman started working on a whim and then got hooked. One more adds that she began grudgingly and now finds it impossible to leave. What accounts for this magnetic or addictive aspect to working on the railway? Kirillova gives us fragments of the workers’ answers – a feeling of family and camaraderie, that being aboard lets one really see ‘human souls’, a sense that the train is a living creature or that each carriage has its own ‘spirit’, and, again and again, that the train has become home.
In an essay on the appeal and rewards of train travel, the Russian writer Margarita Gokun Silver observes that the ‘experience we create when we take the time to look out of the window, start a conversation with a stranger, connect with a family member or simply read a book while rhythmically swaying to the clackety-clack of the wheels helps recuperate the parts of us we neglect and miss.’ With her film, Kirillova takes us deeper still, creating an auditory and visual spell that reaches beyond words to make us feel the ‘beat of the wheels’ and the deep enchantment of the Trans-Siberian.
Director: Anastasia Kirillova
Cinematographer: Jacob Robinson
Editor & second camera: Anastasia Kirillova