A barren winter’s landscape speeds past us, framed by the train window, as if those in the carriage were sitting motionless, watching a film.
We are presented with an escape – through both the cinema and the train journey – from the tensions of social reality by Nika Autor in her work Newsreel 63, The Train of Shadows at the Slovenian Pavilion this year. This is not however a nostalgic attempt to imitate Hollywood’s glamourous portrayal of the train but an engaging and relevant study into the pursuit of happiness and its continual integrity in our lives today.
The development of the Soviet railways in Yuogslavia (which constituted then of the six socialist republics – the SR Bosnia and Herzegovina, SR Croatia, SR Macedonia, SR Montenegro, SR Serbia, and SR Slovenia – until the early 1990s that saw the gradual independence of each) at the end of the 19th century marked the important progress of socialist society. They were built from lottery bonds – a game of chance and an effective tool used in the socialist republics to fund humanitarian purposes or projects for the common good – that paradoxically symbolised some kind of establishment of order amidst chaos.
And films of that time reflected this: the train – an image of hope, of change, of something better – a new form of mass movement. A step forward together. Autor chooses to present her work through the now almost archaic convention of the newsreel; taking us back to the 1960s and 70s when artists were exploring the political and the aesthetical elasticity of this form; and then back again to when newsreel’s were commonplace at theatres, showing as short documentaries before the main feature, and just like the railways, an integrated form of social and political engagement. In Newsreel 63, Autor seamlessly combines elements of nostalgic romance for the cinematic railway with the dangerous reality of the train tracks today filmed through the lens of a phone camera.
The footage of two stowaways – juxtaposed against the archived scenes of an important historic development and dramatic fictional scenes from Hollywood – is a harsh reality to be confronted with. Hidden beneath a carriage, an inch from death, the two refugees film themselves attempting the journey from Belgrade to Ljubljana.
Slepi Potnik – the Slovenian for stowaway – literally translates as blind passenger. A passenger blind to where they are going, hidden below those blind to them above, choosing to gamble blindly on a lottery for a chance of an unknown happiness. The ties of the railway tracks linking the passengers above and below; people from city to city; the cinema with the idea of hope; romantic past to hopeful future amidst a problematic present. Images with a history, as Autor states, ‘that is different from the situations they depict.’