Catching Out, plus an interview with the director, Sarah George
Sarah George’s 2003 documentary Catching Out has a very nostalgic, and ethereal feel. It follows self-proclaimed tramps, hobos, and societal outcasts that choose to illegally hop freight trains to travel the country, trying to keep alive a very American tradition under siege by new, tougher laws, and less tolerant railroad companies. These scruffy people claim it’s the last freedom available to anyone who doesn’t want to be a slave to the American regime of 9-to-5s and capitalism.
One of these freight-hoppers is Jessica. A Berkley drop out. Daughter of hippies, consumed by wanderlust. Another, Lee. Lee is a middle aged train rider, and the most well spoken of the bunch. He seems to to have really taken this practice to heart, making it a lifestyle instead of a conscious ‘take that’ to society. A frequent environmental activist, Lee chooses to live in a shanty in an undisclosed location in the woods. And lastly, there’s Switch and Baby Girl, a hobo couple forced to leave their lives out side of the system in order to join the ‘straights’ when a baby arrives.
These four characters drive the bulk of George’s tight, well-paced film. The stories these four tell remarkable, and the direction creates a beautiful mood. But more than just their stories, there is a longing behind each one of them, searching for their place in the world, and having a damned hard time finding it. George doesn’t get caught up in this idealism, the idea of a life on the rails where altruism is the norm, and no one has to worry about rent, landlords, and The Man. She subtly shows the slight fanaticism of these people, the way they almost protest to much, insisting that their lives are the only way to be truly free, insisting that they wouldn’t have it any other way if their economic situation could be changed.
The final act of the film breaks away from these four main characters. The focus switches to hobo conventions, hobo politics, the fact that in a few short years, this practice may not be possible at all. The film thrives while focusing on George’s human subjects, and althought it slightly dwindles at the end, the mood of the film will stay with you long after the end.
Director Sarah George was kind enough to answer a few questions for Bitchin’ Film Reviews. Here’s what she had to say.
BFR: This is your first credit as a director for a feature length film. Why did you choose to focus on the subject of trainhopping, and where did your funding come from?
Sarah George: There are so many stories behind the making of CATCHING OUT – even the initial decision to the make the film is a story in itself. I guess the simple answer is that I received funding from the King County Arts Commission (in Seattle, WA) to make a short documentary about a trainhopping journey to the National Hobo Convention. But then I hopped my first freight train, and I immediately felt I needed to capture that intoxicating feeling of freedom. I decided to shoot on film and make a feature-length doc. Later I received funding from the Pacific Pioneer Fund and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts but mostly the film was funded on credit cards…
Do you trainhop yourself?
I always like to say I became a filmmaker and a trainhopper simultaneously. Since that first train ride in 1995 I’ve hopped about 10,000 miles on freight trains, including hopping solo to screenings around the country during a self-styled distribution tour.
Was it difficult to be accepted into this culture? One of Jessica’s friends was very outspoken against media and informing the world about their practice, It seems many might feel that way, and shy away from your camera.
It’s a complex community. I’ve had both friends and foes. But I specifically included Nathan’s media rant to make that issue transparent.
While riding the rails for filming purposes, did you ever feel like you were in danger?
The only danger I’ve ever felt on freight trains was from the elements: extreme heat and cold. Otherwise I feel much safer on freight trains than in the surrounding neighborhoods, whether urban or rural. Especially when traveling alone; I feel exposed wandering among strangers in unfamiliar places, but when I slip into a freight yard I feel protected by the trains.
How do you come to meet the four subject you end up following in the film?
Jessica and I connected on the internet – I think she saw my website and wrote me a note, but we did not meet before making the film. Lee and I exchanged letters and eventually went on a long trainhopping adventure prior to filming. Northbank Fred introduced me to Switch and Baby Girl.
Do you stay in contact with them? How has trainhopping changed since you filmed Catching Out?
I’ve lost touch with Switch and Baby Girl. But I’m still close with both Jessica and Lee. I feel that trainhopping has changed a lot since I started riding. It used to be much more relaxed. Now the workers are less friendly and the public more likely to use their cell phones to repot you. I used to really look forward to the momentary interaction with random strangers: they would see me on the train and their faces would light up with surprise and wistfulness. Now I make sure I’m never seen.
Catching Out met a lot of critical acclaim, people (myself included) seem to very much enjoy your direction. Do you have any projects in the works?
Thanks for the compliment. Among the many
Where can people find out more about Catching Out, including where to purchase the DVD?
Thanks to Sarah George for taking the time to talk to Bitchin’ Film Reviews. Check out her film Catching Out when you get a chance, you won’t be sorry.