Riding the Rails: 'Which Way Home' Traces a Treacherous Journey
By Pamela Cohn
After making her first feature documentary, Sister Helen, in 2002, Rebecca Cammisa's second film, Which Way Home, finally world-premiered in the Discovery section at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival this past May. Which Way Home, a story of migrant children trying to get to the US from Latin America through Mexico, took her about six and a half years to make--about five years longer than Cammisa first supposed. Yet, oddly, her obstacle-filled journey in realizing the completion of this project (elusive funding, loads of Mexican governmental and administrative red tape to traverse, a devastating hurricane that laid waste to the train line coming out of Tapachula, among other things) mirrors the story she tells of the thousands of unaccompanied children that embark on the grueling, danger-filled voyage to be reunited with members of their families, or to find better educational and work opportunities for themselves in this country. Now that a new presidential administration is in place and we still continue to see the ramifications of the post-9/11 immigration laws, the film's festival appearances and broadcast debut on HBO this month could not have been more expertly timed for maximum impact.
As the US continues to build a wall between our country and Mexico, Which Way Home, executive-produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich and Russell Smith of Mr. Mudd, and Sheila Nevins of HBO, profiles stories of immigration nightmares through the eyes of the children who make that journey alone. Over the course of several years, Cammisa and her crew followed these boys and girls north through Mexico on a freight train the kids call "La Bestia (The Beast)." Some have not seen their mothers and fathers for years and are trying to reunite with them; some have been robbed, beaten and abandoned by smugglers; some dream of coming to the US to find work that will enable them to send money to their struggling families back home; and some lose their lives along the way.
Cammisa's hope is that this film will raise public awareness of the realities of child migration and provide a better understanding for our policymakers of why children make these journeys on their own. It is a document meant to implore and challenge all of us to demand more humane immigration policy reforms in this country.
recently, I had a chance to sit with Cammisa one afternoon to talk about the years of devotion she's made to realizing this film. She is an incredibly passionate person and speaks eloquently about her experiences, her enormous gratitude to her crew, and the vital importance of this hot-button issue.
IDA: Talk about the relationships you and your crew developed with the kids in Which Way Home. There's enormous trust between subjects and filmmakers.
Rebecca Cammisa: It was a unique experience. Spanish is not my first language, so that was obviously a barrier. In addition to that, their perception of me was narrowly defined, since they'd never met anyone like me in person. I think I was more of a curiosity to them than anything else. I'm a white American woman from New York City and they're trying to get to the US. This was the main reason why I chose not to work alone or in isolation, and why I worked with a Mexican crew. The two cinematographers, Lorenzo Hagerman and Eric Goethals, did the shooting, as did I, but they also conducted the interviews. They were the glue between the kids and me. They're also guys, so they could relate in a different way to the boys.
We would talk about what we wanted to find out, what questions we wanted to ask. We would work it out together, either in advance or on the spot. So, in essence, they functioned as field producers as well. There were times when Lorenzo or Eric would tell people, pointing to me, "She's the boss." It's a very macho culture, so that comment got a lot of blank or dubious stares. Things flowed a lot easier when I acted like the assistant, holding things or carrying equipment [laughing].
The importance of working with a crew from the region cannot be overstated. As important as it was for me to direct, shoot, etc., it was also equally as important for me to hang back at times. It made most people a lot more comfortable, and relationships were made a lot quicker.
At one point in the filming, we had lost track of the kids. We decided to drive to Mexico City to see if they were where all the other migrants tended to congregate. We were walking down the tracks in Lecheria Station and we see these little dots in the distance; one was yellow, so I thought it could be Kevin's [one of the main protagonists] shirt, but I wasn't sure. They recognized us first and started running towards us, yelling our names. We all came running towards each other straight into one another's arms like lovers on a beach! There was a lot of affection and a deep connection. We were so happy to see them, since we were really concerned when we couldn't find them and didn't know what had happened to them. They told us the story of how they were held against their wills and robbed.
IDA: There is an inordinate amount of generosity and open-heartedness on the part of all of your subjects, but I want to talk about one scene in particular--the one in the house when they deliver the boy's remains in a coffin to the home of his parents so they can give him a proper burial. It is a devastating scene. They allowed you to record all of it. It's one of the longest scenes in the film--time stands still and it's very quiet after all the chaos and excitement of the train journeys and the beautiful traveling shots with the vistas moving swiftly by.
RC: You know, I don't think that anyone ever asks them how they feel about anything. In addition, they had mentioned that they had been kind of threatened by certain government people not to talk to the press, for whatever reason; it doesn't really matter. They've been through hell, given the run-around, treated with disrespect. I think those people are sick of that kind of thing. They wanted to talk, and even though it was very painful, they wanted us to be there. I think it's the most important scene in the film because it shows, very bluntly, that children are dying. Yes, you do get caught up in the journey, the adventure, the train rides. But, to me, the most important scene is seeing that coffin with the boy's remains.
IDA: I think the pacing of that scene--again, in juxtaposition to everything that precedes it--is part of what makes it so powerful. Everything stops and there's just the bottomless grief to contend with.
RC: Well, the unsung heroes in documentary filmmaking are the editors, of course, most of whom never get talked about. I got to work with Pax Wassermann, who is extraordinary, and Madeleine Gavin is fantastic as well. I was very lucky to work with both of them.
IDA: Who helped you bring your team together? Every element of the film is superbly executed.
RC: That's one of the many great things about working with Mr. Mudd. They're filmmakers, too; they're creative thinkers. They had a lot of ideas about whom to bring on board for graphics, composers, title and sound design. They would come and sit in on the edit. I benefited greatly from their expertise. They've been making films a lot longer than I have. Whenever they made suggestions about people, it usually worked out really, really well. In terms of the editing, I worked with Madeleine first, and Sheila Nevins wanted me to meet Pax. Madeleine cut the opening and started early on in the project, but had to move on to something else, making it necessary for us to find a full-time editor. Pax mentioned a composer, as did Mr. Mudd, so we were able to work with both James Lavino and Alberto Iglesias.
In terms of finding the Mexican crew, they were found by me going down there and meeting people at the beginning of this whole process. One person in particular who was so instrumental in Mexico was Alejandra Liceaga. She is a phenomenal production manager/coordinating producer. I was also fortunate to be down there on a Fulbright scholarship. It helps to have something like that; it legitimizes you when you're dealing with bureaucracies or government agencies. It gives credibility to your project. But you also need someone who knows the area, knows the people down there and how things work, makes meetings and gatherings possible, creates the access you need; Alejandra did that beautifully. A lot of the success of laying the groundwork in Mexico was due to her work, and she knows how grateful I am. And, as I spoke about before, I had not only great cinematographers in Lorenzo and Eric; they were also great field producers. Even the drivers were fantastic, since they had to shadow us wherever we went and were totally reliable and provided safety and other things we needed along the way. Everyone's contribution was so important. Yes, I produced and directed the film, but it was a collaboration and that collaboration has made it the film that it is.
IDA: This is such a vital topic right now in this country. The current laws have been devastating for hundreds of thousands of US immigrants in the last decade.
RC: Immigration is such a many-tentacled issue, with so many interesting stories and angles. This isn't the kind of film that you just make and leave behind and move on to something else right away. There is a huge outreach push that must go along with it. We want this to be used as a tool for immigration reform. We're working with UNICEF and the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children. The US Embassy in Mexico wants to create border tours for officials, and we want to get it to more Mexican officials throughout Latin America, many of whom are working towards reform. Of course, we want the Obamas to see it, particularly their immigration policy people. The HBO broadcast will certainly get it out to the public and help immeasurably. Now our task is to raise money for this outreach effort, create a Web presence along with all the other tools we need. That's one of the main reasons why the film was created in the first place.
The issues are extremely complex. I wanted to be very specific when making this film. I didn't want to tell stories about millions of people with several different themes going on. In terms of having goals for reform, to my mind, the main issues are the ones of circularity and family reunification. September 11th happened. This country's changed and there's no going back. We have to live with, and be attentive to, that reality. But there's got to be a way of creating some kind of legal circularity. When there's circularity, people can find work and still go back to their families without putting their lives at risk. Instead, money gets directly thrown into the hands of these criminal networks--that's who's benefiting right now, financially. The temporary guest worker permit is the way to go, and I think these are realistic goals, at this point. No system is perfect but it's better than a total lockdown of the border. It's just inhumane not to allow people to get home for fear of arrest and imprisonment, or permanent deportation.
From the beginning, I wanted this film to be a representation of these issues. This poisonous rhetoric that's been spouted by people in power has done a lot of damage. The corporate media has helped disseminate that, far and wide, never bothering to do anything with any depth or understanding, in any way, to show the real impact of all of this on people's lives. It's been going on for a decade and it's time for it to stop.
Which Way Home premieres August 24 on HBO.
Pamela Cohn is a New York-based media producer, freelance writer, film programmer and documentary consultant and writes a well-regarded blog on nonfiction cinema called Still in Motion. She's currently curating a program of American nonfiction shorts and features for the 2010 DocPoint Film Festival in Helsinki, Finland.