In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.
Director Rebecca Cammisa follows the struggles of a handful of young, unaccompanied Central American children (all of them boys except for one nine-year-old girl) who are determined to jump the border to a new home in the United States. Riding on the top of freight trains nicknamed “The Beast”, these young migrants experience the exhausting, dangerous migration from small villages in Honduras and Guatemala. Facing an almost unimaginably treacherous trip of thousands of miles before even reaching the U.S. border, these children sometimes die, survive with amputated limbs, or suffer from predators (including the police). At first the children seem clueless, thinking the journey will be an adventure with a materially fabulous life like the ones pictured on television and in the movies. For those who are orphans or running away, possible adoption at the end of the arduous train ride is their dream. Their parents don’t know what their children will face either, often paying thousands of dollars to smugglers who promise safety at the end of the road. This is in the year 2005.
We learn that child migrants have many reasons for wanting to get to the United States, some involving helping their families by sending money home, some trying to reunite with parents they haven’t seen for years, and one trying to save his mother from an abusive stepfather.
Which Way Home is overwhelming: seeing children (and adults) in such grave need, forced to accept life-threatening choices. The viewer follows small children into a hostile, lawless frontier. Sadly, the youngsters have a romantic dream to travel with the expectation that they will succeed.
There’s a scene in which an adult has met two nine-year-olds, Olga and Freddie. And he asks: What do you want to be when you grow up? They both say “we want to be a doctors.” And he responds that anything they want to do they can do. And, to me, that was perhaps the most tragic line in the entire film. The reality is clear. What they want to do is unlikely to ever happen.
As the US continues to fight over building a wall along the Mexican border, Which Way Home shows the personal cost of immigration through the eyes of these young children who courageously face harrowing circumstances beyond their control.
Stories of hope and courage, disappointment and betrayal, render these children less invisible–if only we will see. This film is absolutely heartbreaking. Are they alive? Did they cross into the US?
Note: Available on Netflix DVD.