A review of 'Just Passing Through' by Ruth Nicklin

Aesthetica - 24 November 2005

You could expect this documentary to be the music video for The Kinks’ infamous ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – a city where 7 million strangers hurry past one another every day. As the camera darts up and around the station, we see a huge mass of concrete and tyres, and one countryman comments: “One feels like a matchstick man”.

Nicklin plays us candid footage of the systematic arrival of trains and the patter of commuting feet alongside a backing track of her interviewees’ lives. A woman picking her son up from his girlfriend’s, a newspaper salesman and a platform worker comprise the mundane routines of the Londoners we see snippets of. Nicklin cleverly films her subjects going about their day-to-day businesses as the fast-paced station operates in black and white behind them. She makes her characters seem bigger in this way, shedding their anonymous skin for just a moment.

As the haunting tannoy booms: “Calling at…” a frenzy of trains and people come and go in fast-forward, until daylight fades.

Two lovers lay across one another on the station floor. The male describes how “On Valentine’s day, I was waiting under the clock with a red rose … we fell in love.” A contrast with the earlier countryman – two people managed to find love in the station, where he just feels lonely.

London’s large homeless community is also represented – tramps who sleep underneath the station are content with the surrounding cafés and tea stalls – one man explains how “If we ain’t got money, he let us off – ‘cos he knows if he gets mugged, we all jump in.”

It puzzles me to think how a short documentary about a train station has gripped me. A social document which echoes of Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ – and as the light darkens over Waterloo, I feel enlightened that someone has put faces to the faceless strangers of London.