Director Rebecca Cammisa’s Which Way Home (premiering tonight at 9pm on HBO) is a documentary that plays in many ways like good genre fiction. It’s a journey narrative, a picaresque, and a coming-of-age all in one. But this is no blithe entertainment. Rather, it’s an earnest attempt to show the personal side of immigration through the eyes of children trying to make it from Latin America into the US. Cammisa and her crew follow a group of unaccompanied child migrants as they journey through Mexico atop a freight train nicknamed “The Beast.” Beset by hunger, various criminal elements, and the constant threat of train accidents, the adolescents dream of an idealized America that will ultimately prove their hardships worthwhile.
It’s a compelling and at times heartbreaking group portrait, one that Cammisa doesn’t muddy up with the standard litany of talking heads. Which Way Home instead favors a more experiential treatment, is more road diary than conventional reportage. I recently had an opportunity to chat with Rebecca about her film, touching on common misconceptions about border-crossing, why she eschewed political talking points, and why many Latin American children often expect the US to be something akin to Disney World.
There’s no shortage of media coverage arising from the US-Mexican border, yet this particular aspect of the immigration issue has been largely overlooked. What drew you to it? It’s true. There’s a lot of coverage, but what migrants really experience can’t be covered in a the kind of three-minute, soundbite-driven news item that usually gets made. What we’re usually spoon-fed are people crossing the Sonora dessert, or people jumping the border fence. I think most people tend to think that immigrants simply show up at the border without any difficulty. Not so. In fact, there’s another challenging border between Mexico and Guatemala that many migrants have to pass, and then the whole arduous journey through Mexico comes after that. I wanted to make people aware that this is the case.
How did you begin your research? I looked around to see if there were any other visual records documenting the situation. I was able to find only one film: El Norte. It’s about two Guatemalan youngsters who make the journey to the United States by rail — but it’s a fiction film rather than a documentary. Given the lack of material at the time, I felt like this was a story that deserved to be explored.
The film makes a point of focusing almost exclusively on the children: it’s very short on geopolitical perspectives and very long on intimate details. Was this a conscious choice from the outset? Absolutely. I could have gone the route of making it more straightforward — full of statistics, maybe some narration, policy people sounding off — but I personally am not attracted to that approach. There are already plenty of films where you get to listen to people talk about an issue, and not enough that show you what it’s like to live that issue. From the beginning my goal was to create a film where, as far as is possible, you’d be put into the shoes of the migrants and experience the journey with them.
Where did you find the children you followed and how did you select them? Mostly we found them in immigration detention centers. The important thing in choosing them — beyond getting their parents’ permission — was talking to the kids and making sure they felt good about it. There were a couple of kids who were a little scared, and after a while concluded they didn’t like it, so we immediately stopped. We had to treat them as sensitively as possible.
What was your involvement with them during filming? Were you ever worried that you might have to intervene on the children’s behalf? We wanted our impact to be minimal. We told them what we were doing and why we were doing it, but were also very clear about what we could not do: provide for them or feed them or help them cross. Nevertheless, we did have an understanding that if they decided to quit and go home, we’d help them do that, and that’s what ended up happening with Fito and Yurico.
How about shooting? Was working atop a moving train a logistical nightmare? It took some getting used to. It wasn’t always easy for our crew to work effectively, and there were problems other than technical. People were suspicious of us all the time. There are a lot of criminal networks along the train route, and they didn’t always care to have cameras around. At one point I was accused of being DEA agent, and we had to leave the scene quickly because a lot of people were becoming dangerously paranoid. On another occasion our soundman was basically held hostage by gang members.
Yikes! It’s a volatile environment. This is what kids who travel like this are experiencing all the time. There are lots of unsavory things going on constantly.
Some of the children in the film are motivated by unusually grandiose ideas about the US. Was this commonplace? Yes. They’re young children without resources, so they’re dreaming big. To them the US is a kind of magical, wish-fulfillment place. They’re up on things like Spider-Man, so I think that what the United States exports about itself through images is a big part of it. Kevin, for example is very specific about what he wants to see: Manhattan. It’s basically the way he imagines the US, a big city of nothing but towers.
It’s also worth noting that many believe almost anything will be better than what they’re leaving behind. Again, Kevin is a good example. He says that life in Honduras for him is like having a stake in his heart. That’s a very powerful statement from a young boy. He can only go up from there.
Although you don’t speak to a political agenda within the film, are there specific policy changes you’re hoping for? I think there needs to be practical, realistic, humane reform. The separation of families is the what’s most frustrating about current policy. Often parents don’t return home for years for fear of not being able to cross back over again. I’d like to see a guest worker program where workers can legally come to the US on a seasonal basis. This would prevent a lot of the children from illegally crossing to see parents in the US. It would also allow workers to put money toward legitimate air and rail travel rather then into the hands of smugglers.
Have you kept up with the children? Is there a way to help? I have, and I am determined that they should get something out of their participation in the film. We’ve set up a website where, if people want to take action and donate, they’ll be able to do so, specifically to the families and the shelters that are in the film. I would love for the children to benefit as much as possible.