Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Review. Boston Under: After Dark

"Something is wrong here" says Patrick Kineavy, director of Physical Infrastructure Maintenance for the MBTA, the transit agency known as the T in Boston, as he descends deeper into the thick black of the tunnel.  He's looking for the cause of the blaring sound, the alarm that signals something is not right in the area known as "Boylston Under", the abandoned section of tube under the Boston Common once retrofitted to serve as a bomb shelter during the height of the Cold War.  Kineavy isn't sure what's going on, but his anxiety is growing.  He was just supposed to be giving a tour of this part of the concrete circuitry that zig-zags under the streets of the city.  But the unexpected warning requires him to shift modes.  Safety of the T system is his job after all.

This scene is part of Boston Under: After Dark, a film made by Edward Peters and Peter Olejnik, two guys who spend their days behind desks at the state's Department of Revenue.  Last March, they decided that the T's workers' tale needed to be told after reading about a writer who spent a whole night underground. "The story really intrigued us as filmmakers because of the potential for an interesting visual look at these tunnels -- and people who work at night in them. The MBTA tunnels were a completely foreign world  to us and we figured there were many other residents who were unaware as well" said Edward via email. They both decided to look into it further.  

As they dug deeper into this infrastructure maze, they found that you can't talk about the T without talking about the people who make the T run.  "As filming progressed, we began meeting and interviewing workers and documenting the oftentimes dangerous work and quickly realized there were some very interesting characters and compelling stories at the MBTA --in particular, the chasm between public perception about the MBTA and the reality of having to maintain a very old system" Edward continued. 

The impersonal and sometimes jostling experience of riding public transit dissolves in the interviews of the people that operate and repair all of the massive machines that move us around each morning.  There is the female welder talking about the burns she gets from her equipment.  There is the woman who drove the Green Line for years describing cars that cut her off regularly, endangering the lives of her passengers as well as them. In an opening scene, a supervisor responds to an emergency on Commonwealth Avenue at 2 a.m. A piece of track has a dangerous crack in it and needs fixing by the time the T resumes service in three hours.  Without repair, a train might derail.  

These are the stories of the people not seen, the "third shift" of night workers who fan out every evening to keep this oldest subway system in North American running.  "These folks that work on Boston's heavy rail after hours really do rely on each other ...and we had the opportunity to see this dynamic" said Peter in an email. 

The other story here is of the two behind the camera, Edward Peters and Peter Olejnik.  Government workers by day, they transform into filmmakers by night. In Edward's accounting, "the project was largely done on our own time - starting work at 11 pm and wrapping up with the crews at 5 am. After that, a quick breakfast -- and lots of coffee!! -- and back to the studio to upload the footage, take a quick nap and back to our day jobs." 

Their dedication expresses another aspect of public service.  What it means, what it really means, to be responsible for moving almost half a billion people every year in one of America's oldest and most important cities is often forgotten, because no one has bothered to tell that story. To express clearly what people often dismiss as background noise is a gift. It also reminds just how much we receive in excellence and professionalism from all our public sector. 

Patrick Kineavy is ok.  He has located the cause of the alarm.  It's a broken pump that's not draining the floor of the tunnel.  He calls in the repair crews and they begin work right away.