Like Out of a Movie
The kids in Which Way Home are hopeful—fundamentally and persistently. They’ve heard the United States offers hope, whether the chance to reunite with long-absent family or support parents and siblings back home in South America and Mexico. Nominated for a 2010 Independent Spirit Award, the documentary screens 5 January as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s wintertime, Pre-Season Special Series. Director Rebecca Cammisa will be on hand at New York’s IFC Center this night to answer questions.
The film focuses on the children making journeys north. Nine-year-old Olga smiles hard and bright as she tells her interviewer, “I’m doing this because it’s been three years since I’ve seen my mother and I hope to be with her in Minnesota.” She’s heard about the snow, she says, and that she will play outside in the cold, “happy with my sisters.” Her large dark eyes brim with tears at this thought, as she and her friend Freddy sit squished together on a large wooden rocking chair. They’ve paused during their journey from Honduras to the United States. They’re traveling on their own, by freight train.
Olga and Freddy are among hundreds of children who make this arduous crossing each year, many without parents. They’ve heard that life in the North will be better than the poverty and loneliness they’ve known. Asked what he’s looking for in the United States, 15-year-old Fito has a ready answer: “A woman to adopt me, so I can grow up and make money.” His own mother abandoned him when he was just three, Fito says, and it was “very rough” on him. “I want everything to change, man,” he says, “Change and be someone else.” “Who would you like to be?” asks the off-screen interviewer. “Well,” Fito answers, as if the answer is obvious. “Anyone.”
All of the children interviewed for Cammisa’s film have similar dreams, born of movie and TV images of the States, where kids have parents and ambitions. Fito’s friend Kevin, 14 years old, smokes a cigarette as he rides atop a freight train car. “Most of the children in Honduras,” he says, “They grew up with that idea, ‘I’m going to the United States.’” He misses his mother, he admits. Back home, she sells empanadas and eh shines shoes. His stepfather abuses them both. “In my life,” Kevin says, “I would like to help her, to buy her a house.”
In following children, the documentary begins with what might be considered a representational and moral problem. The film crew, comprised of adults, doesn╒t interfere in the children’s journeys, only observes them as they feel hungry or face risks. During one sequence, time-lapsed images of the speeding train are accompanied by pounding soundtrack; a black screen indicates the train has entered a tunnel, then the frame cuts back to Kevin and Yurico, a 17-year-old drug addict who has already spent years living on the streets of Tapachula, Chiapas. “Two people just died there in the tunnels,” the boys explain, because they were standing as the train entered the tunnel, misgauging the height. Afterwards, the kids report, they were stopped by “dirty cops” who stole their money. Yurico is proud that it took six of them to take his watch. “I swear, it was like out of a movie.” Kevin nods: “It’s do or die, man.”
Mostly assuming the kids’ perspective, Which Way Home finds a variety of ways to show the risks they face, from graphic shots of a corpse floating in a river near Piedras Negras, on the U.S.-Mexican border, to the impressionistic rushing through the tunnels. Even without illustration or allusive images, the children’s own descriptions are harrowing. Kevin remembers witnessing the gang rape of a mother and daughter: “The truth is, it was extremely unpleasant for me to come on this journey and see how the women suffer”). So, even as the film suggests the adventure and beauty of the children’s journey, it also insists on its dangers. When the train stops at Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, 1038 miles from the U.S. border, one of the workers at the privately run shelter, House of Migrants, warns the travelers of what may lie ahead. “The United States,” he says, “is not the passage of death. The United States is death itself,” where desert temperatures range from 120 to 140 degrees. “Many will never see their families again… Many will die.” And yet, even after his speech, when he asks, “Who really wants to go to the United States?”, everyone in the crowd raises his or her hand, the camera panning over faces, some smiling, most weary or apprehensive.
Here the film detours from the children it has been following to offer a cautionary story of two sets of parents back in Mexico who learn their sons—cousins who traveled together—have been found dead in the Arizona desert. Their mothers show photographs of their lost boys, graduating from high school or posing with family members. One body is so decomposed that it must be identified by DNA tests, a process that takes weeks. “The consulate told us to keep waiting,” Rosario’s mother, Cecilia, says. Once her son is identified, she and her husband drive to meet with the hearse that is returning his remains. The hearse driver also transported Rosario’s cousin’s body weeks earlier. He observes that in his work, “Every day, your feelings are sadness and pain, something you keep inside you like a bomb.” Seeing the coffin, Cecilia walks and weeps. As the camera closes on her face, her hands over her eyes and her body wracked, the frame feels invasive.
Other shots are equally discomforting, different evocations of frustration and pain. When Juan Carlos, a 13-year-old Guatemalan, says he left a letter for his mother Esmerelda, explaining his decision to leave for the States, she earnestly expresses her surprise. The film cuts to her mother, Gloria, living in Los Angeles (she left Guatemala when Esmerelda was just one year old). Come to find out that Juan Carlos’ nine-year-old brother Francisco was smuggled over the border a month earlier, and is now living with Gloria: she agrees to be interviewed, but only with their faces obscured. The effect is almost abstract, certainly disquieting, the camera hovering over and behind her as she explains the child had fractured his arm and fainted, then been left alone in the desert.
The interviewer observes that if a stranger hadn’t found Francisco, he would have died—a fate for many children who end up victims of their own smugglers (many are raped, abused, and abandoned). It’s true, Gloria says, that the “smuggler wouldn’t have called me,” but still, “Dead or alive, one finds them.” Cut to Francisco, sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen, his arm in a sling and his face turned away, his story too typical and singularly horrific. Back in Guatemala, Esmerelda faces the camera, her voice earnest as she explains, “He did suffer and that hurts me a lot, but I think that my family there has opportunities to give my kids which I cannot give them, a chance to improve their lives.” Here the film’s title resonates, as no single image—of mother or child, village road or city street—can show a way home.