One of the five movies announced as a nominee for the Oscar Feature-Length Documentary category took many people, even those in the movie-writing community, by surprise because apparently, not many of them had taken the time to see Rebecca Cammisa’s Which Way Home when it aired on HBO for one reason or another.
Rebecca Cammisa’s doc captures something going on right across our Southern border that so few Americans were even aware of before last year, exploring the immigration system through the eyes of young children who go on the perilous journey of illegally hopping the train that travels across Mexico to try to get into our country, either for work or to be reunited with their parents.
The film creates an eerie parallel between the gorgeous setting of the Mexican countryside as we watch it pass by on the train with the misery and suffering it causes for so many of those kids who brave the perilous journey. The movie is shocking and heartbreaking times as you see and hear what these generally happy kids are forced to go through in order to reunite with their parents.
Oddly, the movie was completed to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year just a few months after the release of Cary Fukunaga’s fictional film Sin Nombre, which took place a similar environment.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Ms. Cammisa to talk about the film and the situation it documents, both which hopefully will gain more attention with the film’s inclusion in the prestigious list of Oscar-nominated docs.
ComingSoon.net: So it’s kind of a long road for this movie. Rebecca Cammisa: That it has.
CS: I saw it at Tribeca and it’s great to see it nominated for an Oscar. Did it ever get a small theatrical release, or was it always planned for HBO? Cammisa: I mean, HBO planned on broadcasting it. We did a theatrical screening in L.A. and New York to qualify for the Academy Awards, but yes, getting the Independent Spirit Nomination and the Oscar Nomination were wonderful surprises considering up to that point the film was very much under the radar.
CS: Right, absolutely, I would think so. What got you started on making this movie? I mean, it’s obviously a very interesting story which up until last year very few Americans knew about and a lot more familiar with now. Cammisa: Right. A friend of mine named Mark Escamilla contacted me after I finished “Sister Helen” which is a documentary film I did. He said, “You really should really research this topic. I was reading about it. This is really the next film you should make.” I read about the issue of child migrants which I had no idea about and the more I read it, the more I realized it could be an incredibly visual story, yet a very important one ’cause it didn’t seem like most of the U.S. public is even aware of what’s going on. But so, not only could it be an incredible story, this dramatic story, but that it also really served a social issue by making people aware of the travesties of what is going on down there and the struggles that migrants are facing so child migrants in particular.
CS: How did you approach this? Were you actually traveling on the train the whole time? I wasn’t sure because we hear someone else asking questions of the kids during the movie. Cammisa: No, no, no, I’m the director so I had to be there the whole time. I don’t think actually anyone’s ever asked me, “Were you there the whole time?” I think most people who’ve interviewed me assumed that I was, but no, no, no, as the director and one of the producers of the film, I have to be there the whole time. I mean, I want to be involved from beginning to end on every film that I make, so yeah, I was there for all the shoots the entire time. I was there for everything.
CS: So you were actually riding on the trains and everything? I’ve just heard how dangerous it is and I’m somewhat shocked that you were able to do that. Cammisa: Yeah, it’s extremely dangerous and when you hear the children are putting themselves in peril, you’ve gotta be there to show it. That is the story. The story isn’t that people are just coming to the northern border and throwing themselves over the wall, if they’re lucky enough to even get that far. There’s a whole journey throughout Mexico from that border between Guatemala and Mexico that it’s so incredibly perilous and children are doing it alone. So you have to be there to show that.
CS: Have you ever had a chance to meet Cary Fukunaga, who directed “Sin Nombre”? He took a similar journey before making his movie. Cammisa: Yes. I actually met Cary years ago because at the time he was a film student at NYU and I was one of the directors hired to work on “Film School,” that series for IFC, and that’s where we met. My job was to document filmmakers making their films and Cary was the DP on one of the films that I was shooting. So we met that way and during the process of meeting each other, we both talked about films we wanted to make and funny enough it was the same story, but he wanted to do fiction and I wanted to do doc. He made the trip, I made the trip, so we talked about our experiences and traded information and talked about things. So yeah, and funny enough when I just got done filming both for the principal photography, he called me up. He was in Mexico City and we met for a bit. So we’ve crisscrossed a little bit here and there and it’s really wonderful that our films came out like, within a month of each other. I’m so glad he got his film made and it’s exciting to see him.
CS: The two movies make great bookends, his movie being a drama, so it can get interested in the subject matter and then you see your movie, which focuses on the real people doing this. Cammisa: Yeah, and I think his film developed into becoming a story it went more in a different direction and mine went straight to child migrants. But no, it’s really exciting to see that both films have been praised and that they’re out there. It’s just funny they came out within a month of each other.
CS: So how did you approach starting this movie, deciding to go on one of those train trips, and how did you go about finding the kids to talk to? Cammisa: Well, first of all you have to do the legwork of… number one, I really wanted to work with people who are from the region. I didn’t want to bring crew in who don’t know the terrain, who don’t know the subject, or who were not familiar with what’s going on. So the first thing I did was go down to Mexico and try and meet with crew and try and meet with people I could work with to get the film made. Then, once we all met up and decided to work together, then we went to work in trying to gain access and permission to be able to go to the places to shoot the film. So in the course of our research we realized that child migrants either just show up wherever adult migrants congregate to try and get north, or they get stuck in detention or get caught. So we worked on getting permission to go to detention centers where children are kept and we went to areas where migrants were traveling north and that’s where we met children along the way.
CS: What was the process for deciding which kids’ stories to follow? Cammisa: Well, the way we approached it was that number one, we would tell the children what it was we were doing and why we were there. Then the second thing was getting in contact with their parents or relatives to let them know what we were doing and ask their permission. So I think the important thing for us was to be able to be with children and film children whose families also knew about what we were doing to make sure it was okay with them. That was important to us. Also, some children, when we contacted them, or talked with them, or met them, they were uncomfortable and afraid of it, so we didn’t bother with them. We only really spent time with the children who were open to it and didn’t feel threatened by it.
CS: How hard is it to get involved with the kids as an observer and to document the story without getting directly involved, especially having the contact with their parents? Cammisa: But I think most people who are in this situation, they’re not used to being asked how they feel or they’re not really valued. They don’t walk around feeling like they’re incredibly valued. They’re really on the road to try and find a better life and they’ve suffered in their own countries. So I think a lot of people, once we described what it is we were after and why we were making the film, they were happy to be involved in it and share their stories with us and trust us.
CS: Some of the kids have domestic problems at home and that’s why they leave but some are going to be with their parents in the States. How does it happen that some many of these kids are on their own making this journey? Cammisa: A lot of different stories. Because there’s no real circularity on the border, there’s no real system that allows people to come work and go home. What that does is, there’s a lockdown on the border, and people are afraid to return home. People that may have worked seasonally and have gone home now don’t even do it ’cause it’s too dangerous or too expensive. They’re afraid they cannot come back to this country, so they’re separated from their families for years. Children grow up missing them. In many cases, families are separated, if not all the children that are left behind, but some go and others are stuck behind. So they feel naturally cut-off and they long to be with their parents, so they go off trying to find them. In other cases, parents work to have their children smuggled in. So there are a lot of different ways and reasons why children come or why parents decide to try and bring their children.
CS: What’s involved with getting the permissions you need to approach a movie like this? Obviously, you were in the immigration building to talk to kids there. Do you just board the train with cameras? Cammisa: Well, I mean, in order to get this film made we approached every organization and corporation or company that we felt we would need access to. Those permissions came through. Sometimes they’d fall off and sometimes they’d be reinstated or honored. You know, you’re dealing with institutions that are concerned about their image. So sometimes we would have permission and other times the permission that we were told we had would fall through or be revoked. So it was a daunting task, but we started off with contacting and with getting a lot of success actually. Mexican immigration really allowed us to go in and film. So we were lucky that way. But, in order to make a film like this, yeah, you have to try and talk with organizations and agencies and it’s a very sensitive issue, so it’s a daunting task. I mean, we started filming in Mexico, we also filmed kind of at a shelter for child migrants in the United States and child protection issues are very important in this country, so we also were able to work and succeed in getting some time with Kevin in detention here in the U.S. So you don’t just show up to places and start filming in some of the cases. You really have to work those permissions and gain that access. So we worked very hard at that.
CS: What was the course of time from first starting this movie… did you end up going on a number of these trips across Mexico over a set period of time? Cammisa: Well, I first pitched this idea in February of 2003. It didn’t get funding till around I guess late 2003, but then was on another film that I had to complete, so I actually did not go off and start filming until November of 2004. Then, a little bit of filming took place in 2005. Then a little bit of funding happened and filming took place in 2006. Then, in 2007 we filmed again. So it was a lot of stopping and starting, stopping and starting. Our biggest challenge was getting the funding it took to really shoot the whole film. Oh my God, you know what today is? Today is the seven-year anniversary of me first pitching this project. (Laughs) February 23rd 2003 was when I went back to look at my emails I thought, “Oh, here’s the first pitch I ever sent out.” So today’s the seven-year anniversary.
CS: Wow, happy anniversary. Cammisa: Thank you.
CS: Good to know that seven years later the movie’s actually done and you can talk about it rather than still trying to make it. Cammisa: Yeah.
CS: One of the things that surprised me is that immigration isn’t the bad guy in the movie. They’re obviously trying to help the kids… Cammisa: Well, let me stop you right there. Mexican immigration gets a really bad rap and I’m sure some of it is deserved and some of it isn’t. I mean, in our experience and for what we dealt with, there are a lot of people who work in Mexican immigration who are really hard working, who really care about the subject of migrants and they’re really trying to do their best. That being said, there are also many, many accounts of corrupt immigration officers who actually harm migrants. So I think there is a big problem in that agency. You know, those who really want to do a great job and want to help and do the right thing, but yet, there are others that are part of the victimization of migrants as well. You know, it’s so interesting when this film is shown in front of a U.S. audience and the line comes up, “Don’t worry, you’re in the hands of the authorities now, you’ll be fine. You’ll be taken care of.” The United States people just listen to it. When that film is shown to people in Central America and Mexico they all laugh at that moment. There is this real reputation that authorities just in general have in Mexico of harming people. So that’s one of those cultural differences that it’s quite striking to me every time I see it occur.
CS: Even so, even with that in mind, there are organizations who are there to help the migrants deal with the perils of this journey. Cammisa: Grupo Beta. Yeah, that’s a perfect example. Grupo Beta is a part of Mexican immigration. Because of the humanitarian crisis that so many people come in from the border being sick or being harmed in some way, they had to create something to handle the amazing amount of migrants streaming over the border and Grupo Beta is one of them which is a non-enforcement wing that kind of advises people or gives them medical aid. So Mexican immigration’s trying to find ways to handle the situation in a humanitarian way. I think the Grupo Beta organization, that is a good example of trying to handle the situation in a better way on the part of Mexican immigration. The being said, there’s still many, many accounts of acts against migrants by corrupt officials.
CS: It’s such a strange thing because when it’s the police who are doing these horrible things, who can you turn to for help? Cammisa: Right. It’s a big, widespread problem throughout Mexico. In terms of what we’ve been able to see or hear about that when you have supposedly the force that supposed to be there to help you and they’re actually doing some of the victimizing, that’s a huge problem.
CS: Essentially, this situation has created lots of factions who are essentially preying on these people who have very little money, which is one of the reasons they’re making the trip. Cammisa: Right, and migrants are a big business right there whether you’re smuggling them or robbing them or kidnapping them for extortion purposes, migrants mean money.
CS: As far as these kids, a lot of them seem to be rather tough and rugged, but this has to leave a lasting impression on them for life. Cammisa: Sure, it does, but for instance, let’s compare Kevin and Fito to Olga and Freddy. So think about the two little kids in that shelter, Olga and Freddy, the nine-year-olds. They’re very young and they’re innocent. They really don’t know what the trip means. They brought on it, they experienced or have witnessed many accidents and troublesome situations going on on their journey, but they didn’t go off by themselves, taking it upon themselves. They’re not tough kids. They’re innocents who are thrown into a very sad circumstance whereas Kevin and Fito, they’re 13 and 14 years of age, they’re a little older. They may be a little more streetwise. They tried the trip before, so they’re a little more battle-tested, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that child migrants who are on the road are these tough kids with nerves of steel that are just gonna do it. I think children from all ages and all levels of vulnerability are put in this situation. I mean, we were told once we had the opportunity to film a seven-year-old who was dumped by herself and was sent to immigration and through the process she went into fetal position and couldn’t even function. Once we got there to film her, one of the counsels asked us, “Please don’t film her,” to which we understood and went, “Okay.” From a filmmaker’s standpoint that would’ve been an incredible moment to film to show people how horrifying this is to children, but at the same time to film a child in that state is daunting especially if she’s in such a fragile state. But this is what happens to children there.
CS: Well with someone like Kevin, the stuff that he’s seen, when he talks about it, it seems absolutely horrifying. How does someone that young get past that? Cammisa: You have to ask them who’s past it or how they cope with things. I mean, a lot of these children have to assume adult responsibilities at a young age. Culturally they’re often made to anyway. But how these trips and how this situation affects children, you’d have to ask them. They’re the ones who are living it daily. I was given a window of time to spend time with them to see what that is, but I couldn’t possibly comment on the full impact of that option.
CS: Obviously the movie’s been on HBO, so are they keeping it in circulation so people can see it? Cammisa: Right now. I mean, we’re in the middle of the Oscar voting. I think once that’s done they’ll probably re-broadcast it again because right now there are Academy screenings and it’s linked to that process, so they’re not airing it unless they have other reasons. I can’t really speak for HBO why they’re not airing it right this moment. I’m sure they will very soon.
CS: I was curious because we figured the name’s getting out there now, people would want to see it if they missed it the first time. Cammisa: I’m getting comments on our Facebook page exactly about that, “Why isn’t it being shown now?” I think that they plan on re-broadcasting it, but I can’t answer as to when they’ll do that.
CS: Obviously, it’s important that people are aware of what these kids and migrant workers are going through to get to this country, but is there anything people who see this movie can do about those conditions? Is knowing about it and understanding the situation enough? Cammisa: No, I mean, there’s many things that people can do after seeing this film. Number one, we have a website WhichWayHome.net, and people can click to donate and that money goes to the National Center for Immigrant Refugee Children and that account actually goes directly to the kids who appear in the film the children and the family, the shelters, we’re trying to make that happen. Also, humane immigration reform has to happen, so people can write their congressman and write their senators. We urge people to take it into their own hands and contact their representatives, congressmen, senators and push them for humane immigration reform and something that spotlights and helps the vulnerable population of child migrants. People can do many things to help.
CS: I’m curious, as a filmmaker when you went into this, did you have any idea that you’d end up getting so involved with this issue? Is that part of the appeal of making a movie like this? Cammisa: I’m not an activist so this is a real first. I guess this is my first experience in getting involved in all the outreach that takes place with a film. In the past, I’ve worked on things or made films and then gone onto the next film. But, you know, you don’t make a film like this for the purpose of being the next film you make. You make a film like this because you want change to happen and that’s always been my goal and I want this film to be used to make change in immigration and promote immigration reform, so I’ve got a real agenda for this film. That being said, I think the strength of the film is that people can see it for themselves, learn and give these people their words. It’s their stories. It’s not me manipulating something, telling people what they should feel. It’s just presenting what’s really going on and people can make their own decisions about how they feel about it.
CS: I was curious about that. I spoke with your competition, the director of “Burma VJ,” and he was surprised to find himself so involved in the plight of the monks in his movie. Cammisa: Exactly. You know, I mean, I wasn’t sure to what extent this would go, but like I said, this is a film about a very important situation that needs to be changed as soon as possible. That’s the job.