Ferroequinology is the study of railways and locomotives. Directed by Alex Nevill, the documentary Ferroequinology follows two artists both captivated by trains but in very different ways. So, can the film appeal to people who are not passionate about the iron horse?
While riding Amtrak from California to Oregon, McNair Evans strikes up conversations with other passengers, takes their photos, and writes a story/journal entry about everyone he meets. They may have boarded at different stations, heading to various stops, but Evans is interested in them no matter what their situation. His project is central to why people board the train. Her journal entries highlight the uniqueness of all the passengers while examining their similarities.
Meanwhile, Andrew Cross travels the Nevada desert in hopes of snapping photos of freight trains still traveling the nearly forgotten tracks that criss-cross the Black Rock Desert. Cross waits hour after hour for a locomotive to pass, aiming to take that perfect shot. Unfortunately, he is not always prepared, and the elusive photo is not.
“…two artists who are both captivated by trains but in a very different way.
Ferroequinology is a quiet, unassuming film as Nevill never pushes or pushes his subjects. Cross isn’t the biggest talker, but when he talks about the freight trains he’s seen or why a plan was put together like that, he’s quite eloquent. However, Cross is also a bit dry, so audiences who don’t like photography or railroads might be a little bored. For me, however, knowing more about the intention and meaning of any work of art is interesting.
But the heart and soul of the documentary is Evans interviewing other Amtrak passengers. A discussion involving a teenage girl delves into her troubled family past as she expresses great excitement for the future; she hopes to go to college soon. Another elderly gentleman and Evans engage in a very engaging theological discussion.
Nevill was also the cinematographer and shot Ferroequinology in lush black and white. The monochrome palette works wonders during segments with Cross. The majesty of the Black Rock desert is on full display, as the filmmaker captures its natural beauty well. Moreover, the choice to shoot in black and white could date back to the early days of cinema. The most obvious reference is that of the Lumière Brothers The arrival of a train at La Ciotat station. It was the silent short that sent unprepared viewers running for their lives out of the theater and onto the streets for fear of being run over by the vehicle. Yes, this legend has been largely debunked, but it’s such a good myth that it hardly matters.
A part of Ferroequinology may not engage viewers, as it may be a bit too down to earth if one does not like landscape portraits. But even then, the cinematography will sweep audience members away, so there’s also something to remember. Plus, the other half, involving Evans and various train passengers, captures humanity at its best – when people genuinely connect and truly empathize with each other.
Ferroequinology screened at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.