Martin DiCicco's documentary focuses on the men who build and work the railroad tracks in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
I have a particular fondness for movies set on trains or in railyards, and also for documentaries about labour. Thus, it should come as no surprise, that Martin DiCicco's All That Passes By Through A Window That Doesn't Open caught my attention at Hot Docs. Indeed, the film is a superbly composed document of the men who build and work the tracks in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
We generally think of laying track for 21st century mass-transit within big cities, or high-speed commuting between them. Or the grand empire-building of the 19th century in North America and Europe. In the northern Middle-East, however, there is a big public works project to build a classic slow-railroad route across Azerbaijan, a commercial gamble for a country that recently has not had the brightest economic future.
This bit of television exposition is ironically juxtaposed in the prologue of the film where a man, sits and waits in a (nearly) abandoned station in Armenia. This station has not seen rail traffic for decades, and is currently being bypassed by the new line, due to the endless Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict.
Meanwhile an engineer angrily deals with potential engine trouble in the middle of nowhere - everywhere here seems the middle of nowhere. It is mundane and foreboding, if one is looking for narrative or foreshadowing in a mainly observational piece of cinema.
Shot over a period of six years by DiCicco, whose skills as a professional cinematographer are certainly on display here, we bear witness to the laborious process of laying track, gorgeously framed, as the passage of time (and progress) is measured in kilometers.
Another measurement might be the number of cigarettes smoked by the workers. All That Passes By Through A Window That Doesn't Open traffics in simple but effective images of dirty fingernails, compelling faces, and the lighting of cigarettes, as the workers talk, eat, dance and yes, smoke, between their paid hours.
Despite masculine camaraderie, there is an epic loneliness to pushing forward, ever forward, with this endeavour from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish border. An image of a man resting in a field of daisies is beautiful but thoroughly isolating. Or a shot of snow piled on laundry set out on a line underscores interim stagnation.
Eschewing any soundtrack, except for the occasional hints of banal middle eastern pop music coming out of radios or tiny TVs, the time and distance are reflected in the pacing of the film, making this expression of languid-despair not for all tastes -- fun fact: everyone was pretty much fired or laid off prior to the film being complete -- but those who opt to take the journey (always forward) with these men will very likely discover the film's many visual and introspective insights of the region.
The film is broken into three parts, with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars construction being the first and largest portion. The second chapter involves Hasop, the man from the prologue, as he drinks and waits with his co-worker (spouse?) Karin for Armenian-Azerbaijan circumstance to change. He laments an long ago opportunity to leave that came about after his military service ended. He might have gone to Germany to build a new life, but the chance was not taken.
All That Passes By Through A Window That Doesn't Open is a forlorn situation, but one captured by DiCicco's camera with striking composition that offers acute emotion. Dignity and labour, and the human face, along with such objects as wallpaper, leather and wood, are considered, how much a job, a career or a paycheque is a man or woman's purpose. Sausages are boiled, cigarettes are of course smoked, but the waiting and stillness lead to alcohol and stagnation so tenacious that even a cathartic respite of shirtless dancing cannot keep it at bay.
I know, I have probably depressed many people reading this, but there is an effecting poetry at play in All That Passes By Through A Window That Doesn't Open in the rhyming of images, and maximum dilation in the film[s 70 minute runtime. If the initial chapter looks and moves ahead to a future, while the middle chapter is framed static and stuck in the past, the ever-so-brief third part considers the title of the film, looking through the eponymous window sideways, as the empty countryside seems both temporary and forever.