Over the last several years the subject of immigrants crossing into the United States over the Mexican border has been a hot topic. With statistics and 10-second sound bites circulating around the Internet and on television, it seems that everyone must have an opinion on illegal immigration. But there is a facet of the debate that many people know nothing about: Children, traveling alone, attempting to make the dangerous journey into the United States.
This is the subject of Rebecca Cammisa’s documentary Which Way Home, which debuted at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Cammisa and her crew followed her young subjects from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras as they traveled on top of freight trains, hoping to reach their ultimate destination. Fully aware of the dangers they face—the possibility of being robbed, murdered or crushed underneath the moving train should they fall onto the tracks—the children, some as young as nine years old, defy the odds so that they may come to America.
Leading up to the August 24 showing of the movie on HBO, Cammisa spoke with MovieMaker about her start as a documentary moviemaker, what she learned making this film and why every person in America really needs to see the movie.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): You started out as a documentary photographer. How did you get into making documentary films?
Rebecca Cammisa (RC): I started photographing a subject named Sister Helen Travis, who was an alcoholic; she stopped drinking, her family tragically died through drug and alcohol-related problems and she decided to become a nun. She moved to the south Bronx to help addicts and run her own home. So I photographed he on and off for about five years, and through that process I thought it would probably make a better film. So the film Sister Helen was made.
MM: I’ve read about the difficulties you had in shooting Which Way Home. You had to stop and start shooting over a period of about six years due to issues with funding, among other things. Does the final product of Which Way Home differ from what you thought the film would be? How did it evolve over time?
RC: When I first started off making this film, I wanted it to be specifically about children who are trying to find their parents and the issue of family reunification. One of the byproducts of the lockdown on the border is that people who normally would come seasonally and then return home all of a sudden weren’t allowed to return. They were afraid they’d never get across the border again, so they stayed in the United States. And what that did was separate families. So the idea that children are trying to find their parents because of the lack of circularity, of people not being able to go back and forth across the border really grabbed me in the beginning. So that was really the sole focus of the film.
As time went on when making the film, we would meet children who were trying to find their parents, but there was also this other group of children that either wanted to help their families by finding work, or were living on the streets and trying to find a better life. By spending time with children with different stories, the film ended up presenting a lot of the different motivations for why children are coming to the United States, not just the one focus of those trying to find their parents.
MM: What advice do you have for moviemakers who wish to start filming their first documentary?
RC: I think one bit of advice is that you have to really care about the story you want to tell, because you may get out there and try and get people to support the film you’re making, and you may not get any support, no one may really be interested in the story you’re telling. If you don’t believe in your story, then no one else will, so I think you have to start of with that confidence and that care about the film; you have to sustain it no matter what to get the story told. I’ve been very lucky as a filmmaker, I’ve gotten support for my films; however, these weren’t necessarily stories that broadcasters were dying to tell or dying to buy. I really had to believe in the stories I was telling and pursue them no matter what.
MM: What made you feel the need to tell the story in Which Way Home? How did you first become passionate about the issue of child migrants?
RC: Well, I first started pitching the film in early 2003. At the time I became aware of the story, I would start looking on the news to find information on the topic of immigration and child migrants, and I’d have to say mostly everything I heard on television was just nasty rhetoric. There didn’t seem to be any stories that really went in-depth about the immigration issue. I found most reports to be just number crunching statistics—immigrants who got here, went undocumented and were labeled criminals. I just felt the rhetoric was rather nasty and not that informative.
I really felt, ‘Well maybe there needs to be a film that does go in this issue more in-depth.’ And that really became a driving force for me: To want to tell the story. I felt that it was just lacking in the public consciousness.
I strive to make films that don’t carry my personal agenda; they allow audience members to watch and make up their own minds about how they feel. I felt that there should be some humane approach to the topic. It’s taken quite a while to get this film made and since then there’ve been other films that have come out about this topic, but at the time there didn’t seem to be much, and that’s what made me feel it was important to get a film made about the immigration issue.
MM: What impact are you hoping that Which Way Home will have?
RC: There are a lot of different goals with the outreach in this film. The important thing is for this film to make people aware of what the situation is throughout Mexico and Central America, and what people do through to try and get to the United States. I would love for this film to be used as a springboard for positive, humane immigration reform. I think this film should be shown in villages and camps throughout Mexico and Central America; maybe if people see this film they will think twice about letting their children go by themselves, since it is so dangerous.
Also, I think the HBO broadcast on August 24 will accomplish a lot. It will really get into the living rooms of Americans. I really want people here in the United States to see this film because a lot of the comments I get at screenings are people coming up to me saying, “I had no idea this was happening.” So I think a better-influenced public will make a more compassionate public and hopefully lead to humane treatment of people who are making a very dangerous decision to try and get to the United States. I think it’s a practice that needs to stop; many people are dying and being raped and being dismembered and falling into terrible circumstances, just because of this need to get to the United States, with no other choices made available to them in their own countries.
Rebecca Cammisa’s Which Way Home will air on HBO on August 24. For more information visit www.hbo.com/docs/docuseries/whichwayhome.