Elevate Difference

Which Way Home

Which Way Home opens like many other films: reeds blowing in the wind, calming yet somehow unsettling music, a body being fished out of the water. If one were judging only from the opening scene, the documentary could have easily been mistaken for a gangster movie or a romance. Past the blowing wind, unfurling train tracks, and shots of muddy faces, Which Way Home failed to live up to my initial impression by getting a little lost, and losing its audience in the process.

From Central America to the U.S., both the plot and geography progress toward their goals of telling the story of male children who migrate from their homeland by riding a train they call “the beast” in order to make a better life for themselves. While Which Way Home follows a clear narrative progression, it insists on splitting your attention between too many characters, none of whom receive the attention they deserve.

A significant amount of time is spent with the boys’ mothers, the film’s only noteworthy adult characters. The mothers are neither sinners nor saints; they are merely tired and downtrodden women. The sons know their mothers work hard, and they want to see them happy, but not if it means the expense of their own happiness and freedom—so they take to the road to make lives of their own.

The mothers, for their part, are somewhat less cavalier about the voyage, but they allow their sons to chart their own courses. They receive notes upon departure and phone calls from the road. In return, most of the boys do not doubt the wisdom of their voyage. They know they are moving from the darkness into light, and that such quests come with costs—including that of their childhood.

Speaking before the screening Rebecca Cammisa, the film’s director, addressed the audience’s concerns of whether the children were able to provide “informed consent” to the documentarians. She replied that this is why they included the children’s mothers in the film. Had the mothers been able to provide for the children’s needs, there would be no subject to document. This raised further questions about whether Which Way Home is a paternalistic look at the topic and an imposition of outsiders’ values. If the children are better off on their own on their road, who are we to judge it? Particularly when their own parents seemed to let them go. And if the children are able to survive on their own, perhaps they are no longer children? At least not in the way you or I may conceive of childhood.

Which Way Home does not lend itself easily to interpretation. I would like to think this film could serve as an argument for rewarding women for the work they do being mothers. If we did, perhaps these women would have the chance to raise their children in better conditions; perhaps the sons would have the chance to remain children; but perhaps they would continue to ride their "beasts” to America regardless.

Written by: Elisheva Zakheim, August 24th 2009
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