'The Trolley': Film Review | Hot Docs 2018

Courtesy of Hot Docs
Falls off the tracks.

Stephen Low's Imax documentary chronicles the history of the revolutionary mode of transportation.

The Hot Docs world-premiere screening of Stephen Low's documentary The Trolley definitely had its sentimental aspects. It was the festival's inaugural presentation of an Imax film, shown at the Ontario Place Cinesphere, a venue built in 1971 as the world's first permanent Imax theater. The director is the son of Colin Low, the inventor of the format, and he himself has extensive Imax credits, including such noteworthy efforts as Titanica and Across the Sea of Time. Adding to its attraction at this festival, the film celebrates an increasingly rare mode of transportation that is still going strong in Toronto. Despite all this serendipity, however, The Trolley proves a major disappointment, coming across more like a promotional industrial film than an objective documentary.

The film chronicles the humble streetcar's history, from its horse-powered version developed in the late 1800s to the electrical models still in use today. Its soundtrack features, what else, "The Trolley Song," and the florid narration written by Low informs us that the pioneering electric trolley system, designed by Frank J. Sprague and first used in Richmond, Virginia, rescued urban landscapes from the "mountains of manure" produced by animals; that it provided energy-efficient transportation at low cost to the masses in egalitarian fashion; and that it promoted a "philosophy of sharing" that spread to cities across the world. Throughout, the tone is one usually reserved for saints and prophets.

Alas, the wonders of these marvelous systems of transportation weren't sufficiently appreciated, as the opening shot of a "trolley cemetery" reminds us. "They paid the ultimate price," the narrator somberly intones as we see images of decrepit trolley cars that were consigned to oblivion. This was the result of an evil cabal of car manufacturers and oil producers conspiring against trolleys in favor of gas-guzzling automobiles, or "motor monkeys." Those people resistant to driving were forced into subways, referred to here as "tunnels of perpetual blackness."

Thankfully, despite all the dystopia on display, the doc assures us there is light at the ends of those tunnels. Under the eco-friendly appellation "light rail," trolleys have been making a comeback in recent years. And why shouldn't they, since they are "one device perfectly suited to save the world" from the life-killing effects of pollution. Like "a new generation of warriors," trolley lines are conquering the streets of cities around the world.

No doubt the film has noble intentions, but its absurdly over-the-top, practically fetishistic approach undermines its very aims. And despite the frequently gorgeous visuals of urban landscapes dotted with sleek new streetcars (Toronto itself recently unveiled the latest iteration of its fabled Red Rocket fleet), the subject matter doesn't particularly lend itself to the big-screen format. Grainy, archival B&W footage, after all, doesn't benefit from being blown up to massive proportions.

The Trolley fulfills its educational aspirations with its concise recounting of the history of a form of urban transportation that even its most frequent riders probably don't think about all that much. Kids will probably adore it, and maybe that was the point. But more mature, sober-minded viewers may feel besieged by its non-stop hagiography. 

Production company: The Stephen Low Company
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Low
Producers: Pietro L. Serapiglia, Stephen Low
Executive producer: Paul Globus
Director of photography: Tristan Breeuwer
Editor: James Lahti
Composers: Beach House, Bruno Coulais
Venue: Hot Docs

45 minutes