g The Film Panel Notetaker: Stranger Than Fiction - "Which Way Home" - January 5, 2010

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - "Which Way Home" - January 5, 2010

IFC Center
New York, NY
January 5, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction's Thom Powers and "Which Way Home Director" Rebecca Cammisa. Photo by Brian Geldin.

***FEBRUARY 2, 2010 UPDATE: As of this morning, "Which Way Home" received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Congratulations, Rebecca!

For its Winter 2010 pre-season, Stranger Than Fiction presented the Academy Award ® shortlisted documentary feature “Which Way Home.” Director Rebecca Cammisa (“Sister Helen”) spoke after the screening for a Q&A, led by Stranger Than Fiction’s Thom Powers.  “Which Way Home” shows the harrowing stories of migrant children taking treacherous journeys on top of freight trains through Mexico in hopes of entering the United States for a better life. Cammisa’s fly-on-the-wall approach is both captivating and heartbreaking, and brings to light a most serious issue. The Q&A after the screening was very captivating as well, because it brought out answers as to how she and her crew were able to capture these images under dangerous circumstances, and also raised ethical issues as documentary filmmakers, such as where do you draw the line when it comes to helping these children?

Powers began by asking Cammisa what made her choose the subject matter for the film, to which she replied that a friend of hers from acting school called her to tell her about an article about the issue of children trying to find their parents in the U.S. She had no idea this even existed, so she started researching it, because she thought it would make for an incredible film.

Powers pointed out that much of the film take place on the edge of the law, where these kids are already at risk, and now she was putting both herself and her crew at crew at risk…were they doing this as an official capacity or were they flying under the radar, and did they ever run into problems with the authorities? She said because the story is about kids jumping onto trains to get into the U.S., it was hers and her crew’s job to show that.  They would get permission, and it would fall through, but they had to proceed anyway. They had support, but when support was withdrawn, the job was to continue anyway.

To be a 14-year-old kid going on these trains is one thing, but to be an adult carrying a camera and gear must have made them feel even more vulnerable…what did that feel like, Powers asked. She said it wasn’t fun. It’s wasn’t as if they had a ticket and a seat or that someone would watch their stuff when they got off. For example, if the two boys Kevin and Fito had decided to get off the train to get something to eat, it meant they had to jump off with them and take their gear and film the action, and as soon as they wanted to get back on a train, they had to get back on with them. They didn’t have much time to eat or drink themselves, so once they got back onto the trains, so sometime the kids would share their food.

Powers then opened the questions up to the audience. The first question was, who amongst the crew would conduct the interviews? She said there were four people in the crew including a driver, herself, a cameraman, and sound person. She also shot. They would discuss what she wanted to know and what the interviews would be. Her Spanish wasn’t as intricate as some of the others. Sometimes the cameraman would function as a field producer. They had to keep it to such a small crew, because of the budget.

Recalling a scene in the film where two small children, a boy and a girl named Freddy and Olga are introduced, Cammisa’s photojournalist friend Alan in the audience asked if it ever crossed her mind if she would or could help them? She said that the first thing that kept them safe while making this film was understanding their role and not stepping beyond it, because the situation of smuggling children down there is a criminal network. Everyone’s part of making money off of it. She and crew wanted to spend more time with Olga and Freddy, but they were in the company of smugglers, therefore they had to be extremely careful about how they behaved. If Olga and Freddy had said to them, “Please help us,” that would be one thing. But they weren’t. But if you start stepping in, you them become a smuggler, and if something happens to these children on the road, you are at fault. On the issue of giving the children money, Cammisa said that if people had seen them giving out money, they could have taken the kids for hostage. You really have to know your place and be extremely careful, especially because these were children, not adults. They did their best to be ethical.

The next question from the audience was if by them having cameras, did it alter their relationship with the children at all, making them show off to the camera or alter their behavior? Cammisa said they constantly made the children aware how dangerous this was. When you show up with your camera, it could be an added incentive, but these children started on their trips days before they arrived and in different countries than in Mexico where they met them. The children’s need to come really had nothing to do them being there. They were going to go anyway, and asked then to stop scaring them, because they were going to go, and were not going back from where they came from. She doesn’t think that the camera propelled them forward. They were very clear to the children, telling them they were there to observe them, not to feed them, pay for them, or transport them. They understood that they were there just to go for the ride.

The final question was, how many days did she and crew spend with the children? She said they ended up with 240 hours of footage. The film took six and a half years to make, of which they only filmed for five and a half months, within which there were never two months in a row. There was a lot of starting and stopping. And her three-month editing window once the film was shot was very problematic, but she said her editors did an amazing job.

Cammisa concluded by saying that people can go onto the film’s website to make donations to shelters that comfort and aid immigrants at http://www.whichwayhome.net/takeaction.

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