Editor’s Note: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
“Which Way Home”
Feature Documentary, 2009, 82 min., Mexico/U.S.
Director: Rebecca Cammisa
Executive Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Bristol Baughan, Jack Turner, Bette Cerf Hill, Sheila Nevins
Editors: Pax Wassermann, Madeleine Gavin
Directors of Photography: Lorenzo Hagerman, Eric Goethals, Rebecca Cammisa
Composers: James Lavino, Alberto Iglesias
Supervising Producer: Sara Bernstein
Synopsis: In this unprecedented, revelatory doc, director Rebecca Cammisa (Sister Helen) follows three unaccompanied children on a harrowing odyssey away from their homes in Latin America and through Mexico with one mighty shepherding hope: to reach the United States, where they can either reunite with their own families who made the journey before them, or create new lives for themselves.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I started my career as a documentary photographer. From 1993 to 1998, I documented Sister Helen Travis, a Benedictine nun, who ran a half way house in the Bronx. After I finished shooting the story I made the rounds to various magazines. LIFE Magazine expressed interest but eventually decided against running it. That rejection forced me to visualize the story in a completely different way. I realized then that Sister Helen’s life would make an extremely compelling film. Fortunately, the digital video market emerged at the same time, so I could now work with a less expensive technology. I immediately put all my creative efforts into learning and creating documentary films, and never stopped.
What prompted the idea for “Which Way Home” and what excited you to undertake it?
After finishing “Sister Helen,” my friend Mark Escamilla contacted me and told me about a subject he thought I should pursue for my next film: Pan-American child migration. Once I researched the issue, I knew that this relatively under-reported story was not just an extremely compelling one, but would also be visual impacting.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
We shot in PAL, using lightweight Sony PD 170 video cameras, because PAL provided a superior quality image and were less obtrusive when following child migrants in the field. Using HD cameras was not an option because HD cameras were not sensitive enough in low-light conditions. We wanted to make sure that we included both boys and girls, from various Central American countries, traveling through Mexico to get to the United States. Therefore, we followed children with different nationalities to reflect that fact.
The goal was to film in the verite documentary tradition, however, when following children, interviews were necessary to deepen our understanding of their lives. No narration was used because I believe that the subjects themselves best reveal their own conditions as events unfold. I envisioned this film as one where the audience becomes immersed in the issue of child migration and as much as possible, convey the experience as our subjects see it themselves. I tried to stay away from footage of “expert,” talking heads, expounding on immigration. Instead our only perspective is that of the subjects who experience migration first hand.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The biggest challenge, of course, was finding financing for a film about child migrants. In 2003, this story was not exactly a popular one, so I was extremely fortunate that the Sundance Documentary Fund and Sara Bernstein and Sheila Nevins of HBO decided to give the project development funding.
Another fortunate turn of events came in 2005, when Mr. Mudd came on board as the film’s executive producer, and raised the funds necessary for us to start principal filming. Also in 2006, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to Mexico which provided my work visa and helped supplement my living expenses.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
I think I’ve achieved some success as a filmmaker when the work touches people and makes them aware of the world around them. Documentary film is a powerful form of communication. It can educate and hopefully be a catalyst for deeper understanding and social/political action. That is what I want my films to accomplish; make people think and hopefully bring about positive change in this world. On a more personal note, it is wonderful when people come up to me after a screening and tell me how the film has provided valuable insight and has moved them.
What are your future projects?
So sorry, but I do not usually talk about future projects unless I am well into developing them.