The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara

Directed by: MacGregor | Documentary | 2018 | Africa | 12:24



Built to transport Mauritania’s vast iron ore reserves, the Mauritania Railway is a 704-kilometer line that cuts through the Sahara Desert on its way from the mining center of Zouerat to the port city of Nouadhibou on Africa’s Atlantic coast.

At 3-kilometers in length, trains on this line are among the longest and heaviest in the world. Passenger cars are sometimes attached to the train, but more often men opt to stow away atop the hopper cars, where daytime temperatures exceed 40°C. Death from falls is common.

The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara follows the journey of Malick, a 27 year-old merchant who relies on the train for his livelihood, even as he risks death each time he climbs aboard. Despite the danger, the train is a lifeline for Malick and the families that live along the railway’s path.

Over a two year period, the crew behind The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara embedded themselves in the community of men and women who depend on the train for their livelihood. The result is a cinematic yet immersive glimpse into a way of life that exists nowhere else in the world.

Macgregor and his team shot this film entirely on a Sony F35 camera, which they modified with a Nikon mount in the pursuit of lightness and a wider array of available lenses. A 25-pound camera setup is far from ideal when shooting atop a moving train, but the resulting filmic quality gives audiences a view of Western Saharan landscapes that they’ve never seen before.

In addition to his career as a commercial director and cinematographer, Macgregor has also garnered praise for his narrative films. Coming on the heels of his award-winning films Similo (2014) and Los Angeles 1991 (2015), The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara expands upon MacGregor’s ability to make a landscape, as much as any human, a character in the unfolding drama.

The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara represents the proposed first installment of “Colliding Worlds,” a new series which explores some of the world’s most remote, harsh, and breathtaking environments, where traditional lifestyles collide with the modern world. These regions, too easily dismissed by travelers, are in fact backdrops for beautiful human pageants that play out every day. In the back of our minds, we know these places exist but we never stop to think that human life goes on there everyday – and it goes on in fascinating ways. 

The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara is earning early praise, including the top prize for cinematography at the XVI International Film Festival of Almeria, and the jury prize for stylistic achievement and best cinematography at the Social Impact Media Awards 2018. The film is currently being shown in festivals around the world, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Moscow International Documentary Film Festival DOKer, the 41th Grenzland-Filmtage in Germany, and Cortoespaña, among others.

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