STEVE INSKEEP, host:
While the kids in your neighborhood are going back to school, kids elsewhere are taking a journey. They are traveling alone, hoping to reach the United States. A new documentary shows boys scrambling to catch a freight train they call The Beast.
(Soundbite of train from "Which Way Home")
INSKEEP: Filmmaker Rebecca Cammisa followed children from Central America as they rode on the tops of trains, slept on the ground and scrounged for food. Cammisa tells their stories in "Which Way Home," which airs on HBO tonight.
The trip north for the children begins long before they reach the Arizona desert or the Rio Grande. It begins in villages of Honduras and Guatemala, thousands of miles away.
Ms. REBECCA CAMMISA (Filmmaker, "Which Way Home"): If you're leaving Honduras or you're leaving points in Central America, you can take buses. But then from Guatemala crossing into Mexico, that becomes a much more dangerous circumstance because it's illegal for people just to cross over, undocumented, into Mexico.
Let's say you get to a southern city like Tapachula, there's a network of smugglers that may help you or help transport you north, maybe through buses or cars or vans. Let's say you don't have the money to pay them to take you - you basically wait for freight trains. You cross the border at Tapachula, you walk eight to ten days to get to Arriaga and there you wait for the train.
Now, once you get on a freight train, there's any number of things that could happen to you; you could have a relatively safe journey or you can fall under the train wheels and be decapitated, cut in half or have legs or arms cut off; you could be robbed from gangs or from corrupt police officials. There's any number of pretty horrible experiences that one can have along the train route.
INSKEEP: You're getting to the point that people in America are more familiar with, the quite risky trip through the desert or swim across a river to get into the United States. But it's amazing to think how many thousands of miles someone has traveled with no money just to get to that incredibly risky point.
Ms. CAMMISA: Right. You know, let's say you make it all the way to that northern border, then you have to find a way to cross.
INSKEEP: What on earth would cause children of 14 years, 13 years, nine years, even younger, to undertake a journey like that?
Ms. CAMMISA: Well, I started off wanting to make a film about children who haven't seen their parents in years, and this is their attempt at family reunification. But as we spent more time meeting child migrants, we learned that child migrants have many, many reasons for wanting to get to the United States.
It could be they believe they'll find a family that will love them and adopt them. Some children are assuming responsibility as young adults and they want to get jobs in the United States and work and send money home for their parents. And then there are children that are just trying to reunite with their parents.
INSKEEP: You spent a lot of the film on a young man named Kevin. He's 14 years old. He's shown smoking, he's missing a tooth, wise-cracking kid, a little bit roguish, a little bit charming. What's his story?
Ms. CAMMISA: Kevin's story is he's a 14-year-old Honduran boy. Since he was young he's just wanted to help his mother get her own home. He lives with his mother and stepfather; he does not get along with his stepfather. He says in the film, you know, my mother is the only treasure I have. So, he's going to go off and he's going to save her.
And when we finally did get to meet Kevin's mother, you know, I think there's an expectation on her part for him to help the family as well. She said, you know, since he was a little boy he told me he would try and help me. And I was hoping he would get adopted; I was hoping that he could help us.
However, that being said, I'm not totally sure she fully understands all of the real dangers that were ahead for him.
INSKEEP: Let's talk a little bit about the dangers. You play some film of a U.S. Border Patrol agent who works on the border with Mexico - his name is Andrew Adosmay(ph) - and here's some of what he said.
(Soundbite of film, "Which Way Home")
Mr. ANDREW ADOSMAY (Border Patrol Agent): You know, I have personally seen dead children in the desert. And in 99 percent of the cases, they were abandoned. Here's a six-year-old kid, doesn't know anything about life, his parents make that decision to bring him to the United States, place him in the hands of some person they don't even know, some person that will get drunk, use drugs. They shouldn't be surprised if their kid never makes it.
Ms. CAMMISA: Let me make a point. I mean, you just played a very evocative moment in the film, and I think it needs a little bit of clarity. I really don't believe that parents are sending their children off knowing how grave it is or allowing - even if they don't want their children to go - the children threaten and say I'm going to go anyway.
You know, one particular family in the film, the mother didn't want her son to go; he said I'm going, it doesn't matter what you say, and he took off.
INSKEEP: Two things come through from the scenes that you shoot on top of or around moving freight trains. One of them, I suppose, is it's kind of crowded. There are a lot of people riding on top of or any corner along the sides of, hanging onto ladders of the trains that you show.
Ms. CAMMISA: Right. There's one shot in the film where you just see the back of a train, the caboose, and it's just moving forward and it's going around a curve. And at first I thought there were maybe three people hanging off of it. I couldn't really see. It was a little backlit so the light was blocking me. But then as I kept squinting and looking, I counted 30 people squeezed into every crevice on the back just to get on.
I mean, it's scary, because where are all these people going to sleep? How are they going to stay up? Are they going to fall off? What's going to happen? So, it was very overwhelming to see people in such grave need and resorting to such desperate measures.
INSKEEP: Now and again your camera swings away from people on the roof of the train and you see the passing scenery. And it's, in many parts of Mexico, remarkably green. You see mountains in the background. You get a sense of a huge, huge landscape, and that made it, in some way, more moving for me. Maybe it made me think of the fact that you're following, in some cases, a single small person, a single kid out there in the world.
Ms. CAMMISA: Being on top of the train, the view of the and atmosphere is so beautiful - it's also really poetic to get on a moving train and to go north. You know, I would observe and watch migrants. They would just lay down with their heads on, just staring into space. And I'd ask them, you know, what are you thinking about and they talk about, well, what it's going to be like when I get there.
So, there's also really a romantic aspect to traveling that way with the expectation that you're going to succeed.
INSKEEP: So, you do have the sense of an awesome and epic journey. But there's something else that comes across here too. There's a scene in which an adult has met two nine-year-olds who identify themselves as Olga and Freddie. And he says, what do you want to be when you grow up? And they both say, we want to be a doctor. And he says, you can do that; anything you want to do you can do.
And, to me, that was maybe the most tragic line in the whole film.
Ms. CAMMISA: Yeah. Olga and Freddie are a real hot point in the film. Whenever the film is screened or people have seen this film, they're always asking me where are there, where are they? And all I can say is I hope that they made it; I hope that they're safe; I hope that they get the opportunities to become doctors.
You're right, it's absolutely heartbreaking. I just don't know where those children are. I hope they're okay.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Rebecca Cammisa's film is called "Which Way Home." It's on tonight on HBO.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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