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Doc Talk: Taking trains, dancing through age, visiting Earth (maybe), fighting for justice

John Vachon's "A Boy Hopping a Freight Train in Dubuque, Iowa," 1940, from "Riding the Rails."
John Vachon's "A Boy Hopping a Freight Train in Dubuque, Iowa," 1940, from "Riding the Rails."Library of Congress

Sadly, the Depression-era photos, film clips, and stories in Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell’s “Riding the Rails” (1998) don’t seem much different from those of today’s victims of a pandemic and a failed economy.

Inspired by Thomas Minehan’s 1934 book, “Boy and Girl Tramps of America,” Uys solicited letters from those who had survived that experience. He received over 3,000 replies.

He and Lovell narrowed these subjects down to 10 men and women — then in their 70s and 80s — who recall the thrill and misery of jumping freight cars, fleeing the brutal railroad police nicknamed “bulls,” enjoying the mixed hospitality of hobo settlements called “jungles” where girls sold themselves for 50 cents and you might be killed for your shoes, travelling across the country from one harvest to the next, and hitching rides heading nowhere. One poignantly relates the utter loneliness felt when dropped off by a driver on a cold night on a desolate stretch of road with not a soul or a light in sight.

Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds in "Riding the Rails."
Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds in "Riding the Rails."PBS

Some feel nostalgic. One subject tears up as he walks along railroad tracks and confesses that he misses the sound and smell of the train and the feeling of sheer freedom. Others say they would never want to undergo such an ordeal again. But Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, who was almost killed the first time he jumped a train, at the age of 16, in 1938, still rides the rails, hopping freight cars at the age of 75, and writing and singing songs about it. His music and that of Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, and Jimmie Rodgers, along with photos by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others evoke the tragic beauty of those terrible times.


“Riding the Rails” is available for streaming beginning Jan. 26 on Amazon Prime, Comcast, and iTunes. Go to ridingtherails-themovie.com.


A scene from "Gracefully."
A scene from "Gracefully."Museum of Fine Arts

Gotta dance

It’s an eerie sight: dressed in a belly dancer’s spangly garb, an 80-year-old man undulates alone in a dark alley, lit by a single lamp, to music from a beat box. The unnamed subject of Arash Eshaghi’s affecting and poetic “Gracefully” had won fame in his youth for his performances dressed as a woman, delighting thousands as he toured Iran. But in 1979 the new Islamic regime banned public dancing. Now he dances alone, or occasionally for elderly women in rest homes. His wife complains about his refusal to quit, though his six sons stand up for him, sometimes fighting those who threaten or mock the old man.

He still has his beloved cows, whom he treats with a touching tenderness. In the film’s opening he is seen helping a cow with a difficult birth. The calf seems still-born but the old man drags it to the mother who licks it until it revives. Later a cow lies in a pool of blood in the street, sacrificed in a religious rite. It seems a troubling metaphor, but in the end the old man and his wife dance together in the darkness.

“Gracefully” can be streamed as part of the Boston Festival of Films From Iran (Jan. 24–Feb. 7). Go to watch.eventive.org/iranfestboston.

What's that light doing above Mount Popocatépetl, near Mexico City? From "Volcanic UFO Mysteries."
What's that light doing above Mount Popocatépetl, near Mexico City? From "Volcanic UFO Mysteries."Uncork'd Entertainment

South of Roswell

If you are weary of the ubiquitous QAnon delusions it might be worth taking a break and watch a movie about a different conspiracy theory, one that has been around since at least 1947. That’s when the Roswell incident sparked the wave of UFO sightings that has only intensified in recent years. As ufologist Stephen Bassett points out in Darcy Weir’s “Volcanic UFO Mysteries,” this extraterrestrial activity was sparked by the advent of the nuclear age. Worried about the probability of the human race destroying itself, says Bassett, the ETs are trying to save us from ourselves. He has been on a mission for 15 years to get the government to open the files that might prove this.


Meanwhile, south of the border, UFO sightings have increased around active volcanoes, in particular Mt. Popocatépetl, located about 50 miles from Mexico City. Mexican journalist Jaime Maussan is on the case, analyzing startling videos of bright objects buzzing and entering the cone and crater. Could they be trying to tap into the vast reservoirs of energy within the volcano for — who knows? It might be time to take another look at Carl Jung’s “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.”

“Volcanic UFO Mysteries” can be streamed on digital platforms, including Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube, and through local cable providers. Go to www.occultjourneys.com/#beyond-the-spectrum.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I have a dream" speech, on Aug. 28, 1968. From "MLK/FBI."
Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I have a dream" speech, on Aug. 28, 1968. From "MLK/FBI."AP/file

Two powerful encores

If you missed these two outstanding, timely documentaries when they were last available here’s another chance to see them. Or watch them again.

Lauded on his birthday holiday by many who would have scorned him when he was alive, Martin Luther King Jr. endured years of surveillance and intimidation from J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. The campaign reached its nadir when agents recorded his extramarital affairs, sent him the tapes, and suggested he kill himself. In “MLK/FBI,” Sam Pollard shows the legendary King of the “I have a dream” speech but does not shy from the sordid details of this flawed man’s private life. Yet King’s greatness is not diminished by this exposure; instead, the ignominy of those who persecuted him is confirmed in Pollard’s detailed and cogent investigation.


“MLK/FBI” is available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, and other platforms. Go to www.mlkfbi.com.

Boniface Mwangi in "Softie."
Boniface Mwangi in "Softie."JACKY NAEGELEN

After the shambles of the last presidential election and the would-be coup that followed, it’s hard to pass judgment on the democratic systems of other countries. Rather one should take heart from those who resist, like the eponymous subject of Sam Soko’s funny, suspenseful, and inspiring “Softie,” Boniface “Softie” Mwangi. He’s a Kenyan photojournalist turned activist, whose showy demonstrations include sending pigs into parliament and painting the walls with blood. But such stunts have little impact on the corrupt regime he opposes, so Mwangi decides to run for office himself. Because of threats he must relocate his wife and children out of the country and the strain of this separation grows as his threadbare campaign battles the well-financed bread and circuses of his opponent, who sings songs and hands out cash for votes. It’s a Capraesque, quixotic quest with potentially fatal consequences.

“Softie” can be streamed on Ovid.tv beginning Jan. 29. Go to search.ovid.tv/cart/coming_soon. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.