Which Way Home (2009)

For my second documentary, I didn’t bother with a random number generator. I just scrolled through and picked the first thing from the List which caught my eye.

This will probably be standard operating procedure from now on; the RNG might make the occasional appearance when I feel particularly indecisive.

All I could find out about Rebecca Cammisa’s Which Way Home before watching was 1) that it was nominated for a 2010 Academy Award under the feature-length documentary category, and 2) a very bare-bones premise. But that was enough. It sounded terrible, and romantic, and heartbreaking, and exciting, all at the same time. Like Enid Blyton, or Dickens, albeit filtered through the harsh reality of modern Mexican immigration. Before even watching, I was hoping for a happy ending.

I was, of course, hopelessly naive.

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I’ve heard the train called ‘Horse,’ but more than anything, they call it ‘The Beast.’ Because you fall asleep and before you know it, you don’t feel it, you just roll off. You fall, and the train wheels grab hold of you.”- Yurico, a.k.a “The Dog.”

Which Way Home begins quietly, opening with a beautiful shot of a languorous, shimmering river. The camera pans up to reveal a corpse, bobbing down with the current. A train passes slowly over a bridge above.

Yellow letters trickle across the bottom of the screen: “Piedras Negras, Mexico. US-Mexico Border.”

The corpse is fished out of the river by a speedboat, blurry and distant on the far bank, and a Mexican man tells the camera that this happens often. The bodies are always Central American migrants, trying to make their way to the USA.

It’s a gut-punch of an opening, and one that quickly and efficiently dispatched any romanticized notions I might have had. And a good thing too, for initially the film’s young main characters seem to romanticize the journey north even more than I. As the film goes on, we meet a wealth of young migrants, all determined to make it past the border; but the ‘main cast,’ so to speak, consist of a group of four.

Kevin is a 14-year-old Honduran who we meet singing nonchalantly while lying lengthways across some railway tracks, smoking a cigarette he found on the ground. He declares that he, like “most of the children in Honduras,” dreams of a life in the US. His mother is so poor she can barely feed him; he’s determined to support her through the money he will make in the US, and build her a nice house.

Out of these 4 ‘main characters,’ Kevin’s the one who stands out most. There’s a certain spark of cheeky determination to him that the documentary captures quite well – unlike the other migrants, who seem in way above their heads, Kevin seems the quintessential urchin, cocky and wry and maintaining a level head.

Spoiler Alert: Skip this if you want to watch the doc. If you don’t mind being spoiled, highlight the text below.

Kevin’s game attitude means that he’s the only one of the central 4 who actually makes it to the USA – but in the end, he goes back to Honduras of his own free will, missing his mother and hometown, and hating the fact that in the US he is kept practically imprisoned in a migrants’ shelter. Furthermore, in the epilogue where we meet him in the shelter, that spark is gone from him entirely – it’s been beaten out of him by the journey, and in the most memorable scene, he relates in a dead voice how he was the witness to a horrific rape of a young woman and her mother in one of the boxcars of the train. Yet once he is back in Honduras, and enduring the abuse of his horrible stepfather once again, Kevin immediately seems to regain some of his old swagger, and some of that need to return to the USA. One of the final text crawls of the doc tells us that, 9 months after the first journey, Kevin once again successfully rode The Beast to the US. He’s a fascinatingly complex kid and memorable character, and also the glue which holds this somewhat messy documentary together – without him, and his heartbreaking mix of confidence, vulnerability, naivete, and genuine resourcefulness, I think the entire film would have fallen apart at the seams.

(Spoiler over.)

Fito is Kevin’s 13-year-old friend, from the same hometown. Unlike the cocksure Kevin, Fito ran away without telling his parents. The journey north was Kevin’s idea to begin with, and it was Kevin who persuaded Fito to come; Fito seems naturally more shy, more prone to fits of nervous giggling and turning his face from the camera. He explains that his mother is never around due to her “partying,” and that his father is dead.

After climbing aboard the Beast for the first time, Kevin and Fito meet the two other ‘main characters’ – the first being Jairo, a 14-year-old Mexican in a backwards baseball cap, who we first see spitting off the side of the train.* His mother, he explains, was “killed over money” less than a year beforehand.

And finally we meet Jairo’s travelling companion, and the eldest of the group. He’s known only as The Dog by his friends, though the documentary reveals that his real name is Yurico. The Dog is a venerable 17 years old, and has lived on the streets for 15 years. He’s a drug addict, he admits, and his dearest dream is to be adopted in the US by a loving family. I want to make it perfectly clear that he says this without a trace of irony, or sarcasm. Such is the myth of the USA in these children’s minds, that the idea of a 17-year-old Mexican drug addict being adopted by an American family seems a perfect possibility.

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When I reviewed Grizzly Man, I implied that Werner Herzog took a very subdued role in the film. Having seen Which Way Home, I wonder if I just wasn’t used to the documentary style of film-making, because compared to this, Herzog in Grizzly Man was a towering, inescapable presence. There is zero narration in Which Way Home – much-needed context is provided through the short yellow sentences which fade in at the bottom of the screen. Unlike Herzog, who clearly directs Grizzly Man towards certain issues which he wants us to wrest with, Which Way Home seems to seek to be as objective as possible. Events are presented starkly and honestly, without even a hint of spin or interference on the film-maker’s part. I think this is a more effective way of telling this particular story, to be honest, as the children interviewed throughout can quite literally speak for themselves.

Although much of the film focuses on Kevin, Fito, Jairo and the Dog, and their journey north, interspersed between their scenes are countless other small snippets of other migrant children’s stories. We meet Juan Carlos, in a shelter about to be returned to his mother. We meet the parents of Rosario, a teenage boy who died of exposure trying to make his way through the desert to the border. But most affecting of all, we meet Freddy and Olga, two 9-year-olds trying to make their way to the US all on their own.

In the interview, both say that they want to be doctors one day. As they walk away along the train tracks, you want to scream after them to return to their parents. The Beast is no place for adult migrants, let alone 9-year-olds.

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The most extraordinary visual sequence of the film is a tracking shot which travels, in super-sped-up mode, along a massive length of the Beast’s tracks. The camera rushes through countless tunnels in staccato whooshes of darkness and noise, before finally hitting one tunnel and stopping there, fading into darkness. As darkness settles over the camera, the mesmerizing soundtrack falls silent, and we hear Kevin’s voice.

Kevin: “Two people just died, there in the tunnels.” The camera fades in on him and the Dog in interview mode, both looking shaken. “They were standing, and when they came to the tunnel, they hit the tunnel.”

The Dog: “They hit the top part. They didn’t even get a chance to duck […] They fell off the train.”

The sudden rush into blackness is perhaps an obvious piece of symbolism, but powerful nonetheless. The migrant group’s narrative continues, but at one point the documentary crew loses them, and the film becomes slightly confused as they rush to try and track them down. The best part of this film is following the journey of these disparate four migrant children, and so I won’t spoil here how it ends for them – whether they get to the USA or not. I will say that none of them, thankfully, die. I was worried that the corpse in the river at the start of the film would prove a deliberate and grim piece of foreshadowing.

It becomes equally clear, along the way, that the Beast is as much a character as the children are. But its role is that of a villain; again and again, people talk in haunted tones of the Beast, of what it makes of those who fall beneath its wheels. They beg God to keep them safe as they ride it. We meet a young woman whose legs were torn off by the Beast; a doctor tells her how lucky she is to be alive. And yet, at the same time, the migrants treat it as a saviour – the best ticket out of Mexico that they’ve got, and a far preferable alternative to trekking through the unforgiving desert.

Which Way Home is a documentary relentlessly focused on its subject matter, but despite this it often seems jumbled; the puzzle pieces of its narrative never quite fall into place, as I suspect they could have with judicious editing, and the film ends with an epilogue conducted worryingly akin to the final episode of a 1970s sitcom. Yet although its jumbled selection of stories never quite come together, and although the characters at the heart of the film are never developed as expertly as Treadwell is in Grizzly Man, in the end I think Which Way Home is a great success despite its flaws.

Its film crew must have dealt with immense difficulty in filming these wayward, slippery kids atop a moving train, of all things, and the fact they track (most of) them down again after losing them once is testament to their diligence. More to the point, the documentary’s sprawling nature doesn’t feel out of place. There are just so many stories to tell; at one point, the silent yellow narration reveals that 100,000 migrant children try to enter the US every year, and at least 1 in 10 will die along the way. There’s too much there to tell in 90 minutes. That Which Way Home manages to tell the story of just 4 of those 100,000 is miraculous enough in itself.

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Yurico – “the Dog” – sits atop the Beast and dreams of the United States.

Documentary Trope of the Day: This one is obvious. Which Way Home, in the excellent and visually stunning tracking shot of the train, makes great use of the time lapse. I think the problem with time-lapse footage is that, if not used correctly, it can seem (perhaps ironically) as just a way of filling up time; not so here, where it serves the purpose of a metaphor that’s unapologetically obvious, but still startlingly powerful in context.

* I wonder about these establishing shots of people in documentaries – it’s almost always a small, insignificant moment, but one in which there’s some kind of activity going on. Like Kevin smoking and singing. I suspect this is a technique by which small gestures cement a person’s ‘character’ in the audience’s mind; but given the hundreds of hours of footage which must have been shot, these ‘establishing’ choices perhaps speak more of what the documentarian wants us to think of this person, than of the one being recorded. If I notice much more of this, it could end up being listed as a DocTrope under one of my reviews.

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