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Shunted: A Video History Of Hutchinson, From Railway Success To Ghost Town

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

The tiny town of Hutchinson is a community that has fallen through the cracks, shafted and shunted by forces beyond their control. What went wrong? Find out in Hutchinson: Shunted - free to watch until Sunday at the online Encounters Film Festival.

(Published - 28 August 2020)

Hutchinson was a coal and water refuelling stop for almost 600 passenger and freight trains a month. This rail traffic and the rail links to the surrounding districts supported a thriving town with several small businesses, schools and a hotel. But from the 1960s to the 1980s the local economy collapsed as SA Railways, the country’s single largest employer, shed jobs due largely to technological changes.

Now Hutchinson is a ghost town.

Photographer Eric Miller and University of the Western Cape Institutional Planning staffer Laurine Platzky passed through Hutchinson and felt compelled to tell the story of the place. The result is ‘Hutchinson: Shunted’, a video documentary that explores some of the high points and tribulations of the town over the last 40+ years, through the stories of former and current residents - and which is free to watch until Sunday 30 August 2020 at the Encounters Film Festival.

Husband-and-wife team Eric Miller and Laurine Platzky at the Apollo Theatre in Victoria West, outside Hutchinson. 

“It was a ‘random’ stop on a slow drive to Johannesburg in 2016, initiated by our son, who thought the Google description of the town was intriguing enough for us to take a look,” Miller recalls. “We spent barely half an hour there before we continued our journey. But what little we saw was intriguing, sparking long conversations in the car afterwards about what might have happened in the town to leave it looking as it did. Those conversations grew like seedlings planted in ripe inquisitive soil, until in 2018, Laurine and I finally returned to Hutchinson.” 

“I retired from the Western Cape government in 2017, and I’d sort of decided I wasn’t going to have that much to do when I retired,” Platzky says. “But Hutchinson reminded me of the places I’d seen in my NGO days, with forced removals, poverty, desperation and real stories behind them. I had to take part - and also, it was the first time in nearly 30 years of marriage that I actually worked with Eric on a project, which was good.”

Platzky says the residents of Hutchinson who appear in the documentary responded openly to her and Miller’s questions about their home:

“Listening was key to making this film. It seems no one has ever asked the people of Hutchinson for their views or their memories before. It was such a privilege for us to hear these stories and try to piece the big picture together.”

 

Hutchinson: A Look Into The Future (Through The Past)

Hutchinson is a community that has fallen through the cracks, that has been shafted and shunted. “These stories, told by school teachers and principals, shunters, drivers, policemen, managers, postmasters and others who were central to the town’s life then and now, paint a graphic and heartfelt picture of the impact of a post-apartheid changing world on a small rural community,” says Platzky. “Hutchinson is representative of numerous similar towns and railway communities around South Africa, many of which are similarly abandoned or neglected.”

And of course, it’s about more than railways and steam trains. Communities like these face a bleak future as a result of technological, economic and legislative change. Some of these changes happened 40-50 years ago, and certainly many were exacerbated by the iniquities of apartheid legislation and practice. But many of these changes are happening right now.

“What has happened - what is still happening - in Hutchinson does not have a single root or cause,” Miller notes. “It is not ‘just’ about the legacy of apartheid. It is not ‘just’ about current government failure, or corruption. The challenges facing Hutchinson are widespread in South Africa, and in many cases globally, in a post-industrial world at the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Hutchinson is an intense microcosm about how a community can and does react (or doesn't) to these shifting sands”.

Despite growing up in separate communities and experiencing life in Hutchinson differently, residents and former residents recall their varying accounts of common events. The one thing most of them share is a powerful memory and love of, and connection to, the town of their youth.

“If there’s a message here, it’s that change is inevitable,” Miller concludes. “But how we survive that change is dependent on how we understand it and react to it - and how we react to it is often dependent on our personal resources: our education, work and home security, and so on. And it’s also dependent on the bonds we build as communities.”

Shunted is free to watch right now at the 22nd African Encounters Film Festival. Book your tickets now at https://encounters.co.za/film/hutchinson/. And why not view the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-CHpnGur-s?

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