By Elias Savada.
Ferroequinology is a pleasant ebb and flo road movie about wandering souls. Laconic, lyrical, observatory, and part soft-spoken public service announcement.”
At just 66 minutes, Ferroequinology is a short-haul documentary about a big ass word (the study of the iron horse, i.e., locomotives, but the film is a bit more than that). It won’t task your patience as with most other overwrought and overlong features — and the soothing words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s eloquent ode Starting From San Francisco that greets you as you settle into your coach seat for this brief ride, will calm your soul. The clackety-clack of trains and the moving black-and-white panoramas outside your window will ease any tightness in your day, as Alex Nevill’s lightly poetic journey leaves the station.
But before the director-cinematographer-producer (with Keith Haitkin, who was also the location sound recordist) allows any viewers on board, he needs to introduce his principal subjects, speaking on their philosophy as photographic artists with a fascination for the locomotive landscape. American McNair Evans, a lover of Amtrak who lives in California’s Golden City, and 60-year-old Brit Andrew Cross, a freight train and railroad station enthusiast (especially on road trips to the United States), are at work in their respective studios, shuffling through hundreds of prints they are selecting for various projects.
Eventually Cross embarks as Nevill centers him in his film’s crosshairs, with the artist providing the explanatory perspective. Moments later the film’s interweaving back-and-forth focus on either man switches to a covid-masked Evans stepping aboard the Coast Starlight train heading to Portland, Oregon, a night departure and mid-afternoon arrival.
Evans wants to get passenger stories about “why they’re traveling by train.” Since he studied cultural anthropology in college 20 years earlier, he quickly expands the available topics to include “about society today, or our country.” Pretty much an open book for his fellow riders at socially-distanced tables in a scenic-friendly Superliner lounge car. Lots of windows. He just wants to talk and listen.
Cross, meanwhile, takes to the road — by Ford 4×4 truck — and waits with his camera and tripod for the right, well, what us old-timers used to call a Kodak moment. Sometimes a train might show up, sometimes it doesn’t (most of the time, in fact). He’s ready, with camera…and sunblock, whatever the outcome. Of course, if you’re parked by railroad tracks, he’ll probably get lucky. “It’s all about potential … anticipation,” he comments to the filmmaker. “It’s not South London.” Nevill’s approach is like watching paint dry.
The Cross half of this documentary is a solitary affair — just him. Nevill populates the Evans portion by focusing on the folks the photographer chats with during the morning and afternoon portions (i.e., when they’re awake and there’s natural daylight to shade the stark monochromatic texture). Basically, you’re seeing how these two men interact with the world, glimpsing their processes in small bites.
Nevill’s first foray into feature directing comes off as an economical, meditative piece, leaning heavily on the visuals. That makes sense, as he’s been a cinematographer for a decade, working on dozens of shorts, mainly in England and Scotland and mostly for Ben Mallaby, a BAFTA-nominated comedy director. I’m not sure where Ferroequinology will be viewable outside of its North American premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival (it had its world bow in August 2021 at the Chichester International Film Festival), but some of the small films Nevill worked on are curated on Nevill’s Vimeo channel. A good starting point is Fishcakes & Cocaine, a BFI and DocNext Network documentary he made in 2014 about some offbeat residents (one being a narcissistic photographer/artist) of the small Scottish community of Scoraig. You’ll also get a chuckle out of One Tw*t (with Mallaby directing and Nevill behind the camera), which showcases an unusually strong connection between a brother and sister.
Ferroequinology is a pleasant ebb and flo road movie about wandering souls. Laconic, lyrical, observatory, and part soft-spoken public service announcement for Amtrak or Coors Light.
In a harried world, it’s a lovely respite, where nostalgia rides the rails.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).