Article | FREIGHTS – A Film by Patrick O’Connor

Markingthetracks Words by Elzbieta Chmiel During an evening commute a car stops and waits at a railroad crossing. A light flashes red. A bell dings loudly. A train rushes by. Blurs of colours whiz past. After a moment, the crossing bar is raised and the car drives away, just like every other day.But the train keeps onward, facing a narrowing perspective, repeatedly hitting the tracks, continuing on to its next destination. And with it, the colourful train brings its story.   If director Patrick O’Connor could have a superpower he would want to fly. This eagerness to see everything and ponder it from above makes him a talented filmmaker. His latest documentary, Freights premiered at this year’s FIFA (International Festival of Films on Art) in Montreal. It focuses on the particular subculture of painting graffiti on freight trains. The film puts freight graffiti in the foreground for forty-five minutes to bring an appreciation to what may seem as just scribbles zooming by. Although some may consider graffiti an eyesore, it is an ancient way of communicating, expressing thoughts and opinions, and marking territories. O’Connor does not condone graffiti; his goal is to give the audience an in-depth look into graffiti culture, and to show how graffiti writers use freight trains to communicate with one another as they travel all over Canada and into the United States. As is evident in the film, the Montreal native’s favorite place to film is in the prairies because “as a little kid I loved thunderstorms…I love flat cornfields, wheat fields, (they’re) so beautiful to me.” His shots capture the disparity between industrialism and nature: the rustic red freight cars splashed with colourful tags contrast nicely with the pale blue sky and fluffy clouds of the prairies. Markingthetracks2The film features interviews with the blurred-out faces of Canadian graffiti artists such as Take5, Sensr, Keep6, Theory, Flow, Aper, Relic and many more. It also includes opinions of graffiti enthusiasts “benching” (watching or taking photos) by the tracks. With Freights O’Connor wants to give the general public (who might not like graffiti), a chance to “learn some things about how this world is, and see how in depth it is… how it could be, maybe, a bit more complex than people realize.” Indeed there is much more to this specific mobile art than at first glance. While working on the documentary, O’Connor learned about different types of trains, models and surfaces, and why some get chosen over others. For example, he explains, “there (are) types of ridges and bumps and surfaces that might annoy writers, so certain writers don't paint these ’cause of the way the bumps come out.” The film describes such details as how writers choose their trains, how they avoid getting caught, and why rivalries exist between writers. Like in any community, freight graffiti does have its rules. There is a mutual understanding amongst writers: they do not tag each other’s trains and they stay away from each other’s spots on the railroad. They are also careful to take their cans and any trash away with them. Leaving garbage or having too many people in one area would attract attention from the “bulls” (railroad security officers), making it easier to get caught. And since painting cars can be a dangerous feat, writers must also watch out for the dimmed headlights of passing trains; just one misstep could be fatal. “Stop. Listen. Live.” is the motto at the tracks. The mission of these expressive trains is to send political, amusing, or thought-provoking messages, or to simply mark one’s turf. The tags inform the others of a sender’s whereabouts, ideas, and signature. Freight graffiti unifies its participants, yet highlights the diversity of their expressions and the differences in their geographical locations. Upon viewing the film and reflecting, the act of painting a name on a freight train raises an interesting point about its ownership. Once the spray paint hits the freight car’s surface it becomes something else. By writing a name on a freight car, the train no longer belongs to the company who owns it, nor does it belong to the artist. So are the trains wearing names, or are the names carrying trains? The painted train changes from a company owned vessel of transportation to a mobile public message created by an artist for an audience. Thus the train can belong to both no one and anyone, depending on who is paying attention. Because of its mobility, freight graffiti reaches a broader audience than passenger train graffiti, or graffiti found on brick walls. This is in part due to how accessible the freight trains are. One proponent calculated that there are around 1.6 million freight cars across North America – if that figure is multiplied by the two sides found on every train car, there are around 3.2 million train car surfaces to hit! These surfaces are also less likely to get repainted. Passenger train graffiti has a much shorter existence because rail companies are concerned about the image they are presenting to their potential customers so any tag gets painted over very fast. However companies aren’t as concerned with the graffiti on freight trains because it doesn't ruin the cargo inside, and since the trains don’t typically stop in city centres, it’s less of an eyesore to the public. The artists can also ensure their work will have a longer life if they respect the numbers on the side of the car. Often entire sides of a car are painted, but the numbers in the corner are left untouched. The numbers are a company’s way of tracking what’s inside the car and where it’s going, so if the tags aren’t preventing the cargo from reaching its destinations, they can prolong their existence. Writers prefer to mark the sides of freight cars because their art tends to stick around longer on these surfaces. But when a contract changes for a train company, so do the faces of the coloured rectangular prisms. The cars get repainted, the messages are cut, so the writers choose another blank canvas, paint another message, and release it into the world. Letting one’s canvas ride away on the tracks is part of the expression and the intention in this temporal art. The artists do not know what will happen to their work, where it will go, or whether they will ever see it again. As one subject says, it’s a “disposable art - here one day, gone the next.” The beauty of this mobile art lies in its freedom and temporality. O’Connor may not have the power to fly, but the eyes of his camera certainly move swiftly presenting a sweeping view of the graffiti world. Patrick O’Connor’s first documentary, Making a Name premiered at FIFA 2013. This year’s entry continued the graffiti theme, and in his next film he wants to include graffiti from the rest of North America. He intends to finish two more graffiti-related projects in the near future, one documentary and one fiction. And many documentaries with other themes are also on their way. Source: fameblogcanada

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