This documentary lets you connect with fellow commuters

Jamie Stevenson
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E" E

We've all done it - sat on the tube, absentmindedly staring at the person opposite you and wondered: who are they? We spend so much time on public transit that it's only natural that a degree of fascination creeps in regarding those surrounding us - a supporting cast of characters who we never learn anything about. Yet, a new documentary project aims to change this.

Life Underground is an interactive web documentary project created by French-American filmmaker Hervé Cohen, who has travelled the world to shed a light on that most insular of creatures: the public transit user.

Hervé tells us more about the inspiration for the project:

"I wanted to discover what passengers in subways had in mind, and look behind their appearance and figure out who these people really are. When I travel on the subway I always look around and am intrigued by the people travelling with me, wondering who they are, or who they have in mind."

"Public transit is a regular experience for a huge number of people, and gives people time to think and grow curious about people around you. The project comes from this - the wanting to know more."

The documentary itself is a mixture of fantasy and reality, with Hervé compiling video interviews of commuters telling their stories from all over the world, while creating the illusion that they are part of one, enormous, interlinked metro system that connects each city.

"I wanted to cross the lines between countries, and create a fantasy where all these cities were linked," says Hervé.

Talking the talk

However, as anyone who has ever travelled a subway system before can attest, people usually seem reluctant to engage with fellow passengers. Actually talking to other commuters, in most cultures anyway, seems to be almost sacrilege in the confines of the tube.

So how do you overcome this? Hervé explains:

"After writing the proposals and asking for grants for the documentary, I decided to test the idea for myself. I took my camera and travelled to Rio, where I did some test shooting on the subways. I approached strangers and asked if they'd like to talk about themselves, and there were no reservations."

As Hervé extended his travels - from Athens, to Paris, San Francisco and many more - he approached more and more people. He adds, "When I finally showed the footage people were so surprised that commuters would open up, sharing intimate details about themselves. After seeing this, the UITP in Brussels (a public transport organisation), began supporting the project."

According to Hervé, the goal was to offer a human approach to public transportation, highlighting that there's a profound story behind every passenger sat silently beside you. With the UITP in support, the project grew and Hervé was able to work with many different transportation networks around the world.

Culture club

Hervé, who began the project in earnest in June 2016, has now documented commuters in 11 countries, and intends to extend the shoots to half a dozen more in the coming months. He claims that while he was always able to find people that would open up on film, cultural differences are evident. He says:

"I found that commuters' relationships with their families were very different, depending on the culture. In Asian countries, for example, parents seem to be more present in young people's lives than in European cultures."

That said, Hervé claims that there are many topics that bind us together - death, being one.

He says, "Issues surrounding death were apparent everywhere I went.  I had a wonderful testimony in Brussels from two elderly people who talked openly about their anxieties about the end of life. Some things are just universal - stories about love, divorce - we all have the same preoccupations."

"In Hong Kong, someone told me she was gay but never talked about it to anyone, and in the documentary, she spoke English so that her parents couldn't understand this confession.  While these issues are more prevalent in some countries, our fears and anxieties are much the same."

Life Underground is filled with such fascinating stories, including a young man in China who left his village to go to Shenzhen and become a boxer. Once there, he was beaten by his trainer and had recurring nightmares about his beatings. As far as Hervé is aware, the young man is still in training with the same man.

Life Underground, it seems, is teeming with stories, good and bad. So how best to tell them?

Enhancing the experience

The documentary itself will be accessible online, as part of an interactive experience where people can see commuters on a subway and click on them to reveal their recorded stories. The goal, eventually, is to release a feature length film.

"Interactivity was important as it recreates the experience of being intrigued by someone, and going beyond the fantasy of asking 'can you tell me something about yourself?' I want to recreate the urge to speak to somebody on public transport, but actually allow users to go one step further."

When asked whether public transport networks had affected the way people talk to one another, Hervé explained that such networks seemed to be rules unto themselves, and that outside of subways and metros, people are more in tune with one another. He adds:

"It also depends - in some countries, people are glued to their phones and don't lift their heads, even when walking. In others, people play music and engage more, even dancing and clapping in stations."

"Public transport can be a lovely experience, it's just hard to break the bubble."

Life Underground will be launched soon - check out the website for more information.

Topics: Transit, Features, Editor's picks, Weekend reads