Family biography and autobiography are distilled through the alchemy of fiction to become the straightforward, gently lyrical “The Lineman’s Diary.” Helmer/scripter Zhanabek Zhetiruov, himself a former railroad lineman in a family of train workers, has a style trapped in Soviet-era filmmaking, but this paean to an elderly worker and his dedication to the rails boasts beautiful sepia lensing and a tight running time that many other helmers could learn from. Winner of Kazakhstan’s top Central Asian prize as well as the Fipresci award at Turin, pic will please a wide range of fest auds.
Tale is bookended by shots of an elderly blind man (Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev) rocking back and forth on the railroad ties to check their soundness. He’s been doing the same job for decades, and, though his son officially took over his position, it’s the old man whose keen ear and extraordinary feel for the equipment proves more accurate than the new computer devices used to test the tracks.
While family dynamics are filled in a little bit — young grandson Sanat (Rustem Abdolda) goes off to boarding school in town, his parents quarrel over dad’s eye for the ladies — the core remains the old lineman and his love for the tracks. Though trains are a common theme in Kazakh films, the rails themselves have perhaps never been so lovingly described, counted off and cataloged as in the grandfather’s memory.
It’s partly this celebration of man-as-worker that gives “Lineman” such a Soviet feel, with its emphasis on individual responsibility to the greater collective. Lensing emphasizes the inherent dignity of the elderly protag, and the simplicity of the story, told in the purest of ways, contributes to the pre-glasnost feel. Silent archival footage of herdsmen on camels and bulls racing the newly arrived trains provides the only subtext, quietly reflecting on the social upheavals forced on the formerly nomadic society by the iron horse.
Zhetiruov struck unexpected gold when he found old B&W stock, a serendipitous compromise when he realized he hadn’t the funds to make a color feature. The resulting sepia-toned images give a warmth and sharpness severely lacking in this over-digitized age. Not just thesp Ikhtymbayev’s marvelous lined face but the expansive and remote windswept landscape greatly benefit from d.p. Boris Troshev’s skilled use of his medium.
Subtitles need a complete rewrite (English and Italian translations often differed significantly), and even pic’s title varies wildly, alternately given as “Notes By a Trackman,” “Notes of a Walkman,” “Lineman Notes,” and “Notes of a Traveling Inspector,” among others.