Anyone who? ever taken a train across America knows that while it may not be the most expedient mode of travel, it is a great way to see the country. America? rails cut through some of the country? most desolate and forgotten places, but also some of its most beautiful and serene, and there are few people who know these meandering pathways better than a train-hopper.
Though it seems to defy convention at every turn, at its heart, the train-hopping community is like any other. Its people come from all walks of life from crusty punks to affluent yuppies and share a common tradition. Documentary filmmaker Sarah George immersed herself in this culture after applying for a grant from the Kings County Arts Commission in Seattle so she could film a 20-minute video documentary of a train-hopper? journey to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, IA. Upon receiving the grant, Sarah was taken out to a train yard for her first ride. The film, and her life, evolved from there.
Told with vivid camerawork and through the eyes and words of even more vibrant people, Catching Out is less a how-to guide to train-hopping than it is an exploration of a culture that continues to exist between the cracks of mainstream American society. Sarah decided to focus on the larger issues, describing her documentary as ? meditation on freedom. The Synthesis got the chance to speak to Sarah about her film, how it was received and why she hopes to continue to be a documentarian and a train-hopper.

How has the reaction been to Catching Out?
I?e had good reactions at almost all the screenings. They definitely differ; the differences, I think, tend to be on how exposed the audiences are to subcultures that are similar to the one that is portrayed in the film. I was just on tour in the South doing the Southern Circuit Tour. The Southern Circuit is basically a program by the South Carolina Arts Commission, and they bring five films and five filmmakers through the Southeast every year. They?e bringing these filmmakers into communities that otherwise don? have any access to independent film. Going into the Southern Circuit, I was able to interact with audiences who never even thought about some of the issues that were raised in Catching Out; it was a completely foreign world to them. I think because it? so foreign, they?e even more inspired; they connect in a different way. It? a transforming experience for them. In the Q&As afterwards, the people are completely overwhelmed.
And then, of course, there are people who I have showed the film to who are very much a part of a counterculture scene. They appreciate it because they see themselves reflected in the characters, and they?e people who don? often see themselves reflected in the media. It? different.

Before the making of the film, you hadn? hopped a train yourself, had you?
No. I always say that prior to making Catching Out, I was neither a train-hopper nor a filmmaker, and now I? both. And I hope to continue to do both.

Did it become difficult to toe the line between train riding and going back to your regular life?
It? funny, you?e not the first person to ask me that, although I haven? gotten that question until just recently. I think I? pretty adept at going between both worlds. If anything, the train-hopper lifestyle that universe keeps me sane and allows me to participate in mainstream society to the extent that I have to in order to pursue my career and do the work that I want to do. I feel very grateful that I?e had the opportunity to be immersed in the train-hopping community and be surrounded by people who have really pushed me in a lot of ways. I think it? helped me to become a better person maybe not better, but definitely become who I am and help define my values.
I guess the reason why I say that I hope to continue being a train-hopper and a filmmaker is that they are entwined to some degree. Train hopping does offer an escape from society. My feelings about where our mainstream culture? at and where our society? at is that we?e in a pretty dismal place. I feel like we?e sacrificed a lot of freedom and individuality. The need to tap into those extremes like hopping trains is definitely important. It keeps me sane.

How would you describe the connections you make with other people when riding the trains?
One of the amazing things about the train-hopping community is that the people value that kind of community. It? also one of the last remaining old-time, oral history, word of mouth type of traditions. When you?e been out hopping a freight train for a while and you happen to stumble across another person riding a freight train, you?e happy to see that person. You immediately start exchanging stories and information, or maybe asking questions because you were just in a yard and it was really confusing to you because what you expected of the behavior of the trains wasn? what happened at all. There is this genuine understanding that all we really have is each other, so people are really generous with their insights and knowledge and try to share [those with others].
I think it? also a very creative community. I often say that the cool thing about the people I decided to portray in Catching Out is that most of them are trying to avoid work. They?e decided to keep their cost of living really low, so they don? have to work much. Everyone else is running around and working their tails off to try to make a buck and have some sense of security, but train-hoppers are living wild and free.
But the point is, what are these people doing while the rest of us are working? What are they doing with their time? I think that they?e doing three different things: they?e nurturing community, nurturing creativity and a some of them are also dedicating themselves to social, environmental and political activism. I think that? really beautiful; it? an intentional community, it? a conscious community and it? people who are making these decisions for reasons they put a lot of thought into.

There was one person you interviewed in the film who seemed a bit wary about your intentions in making a film about the train-hopping counterculture and getting that lifestyle out to a wider public. Did you have a problem breaking into the community as a filmmaker?
Absolutely. There were a number of people in the train-hopping community who were actively discouraging me from trying to make a film. They were very wary of the media and the ramifications of this community, this experience, this culture being publicized and reaching the mainstream consciousness. What I tried to do was really listen to people and respect their concerns and try to find out where they were coming from. What most of them were concerned about, ultimately, was that people would see the film and go try to hop a freight train, and because they wouldn? know what they were doing, would hurt themselves or even die. The more people who were hurting themselves or dying from hopping freight trains, the more there would have been a public outcry to crack down on it. One of the things I tried to do with the film was avoid giving any practical information about how to hop a train.
While I was careful to listen to the concerns of the train-hopping community, ultimately, I wasn? trying [to make] the definitive documentary about train hopping. I was really trying to use train hopping as a metaphor for the human search for freedom.
I think I did a fair job of respecting their concerns and articulating their experiences, because Catching Out has been shown extensively in the train-hopping community and even the people who were most vocal about their concerns have complimented me and liked the film. They felt that I handled the material as well as could be expected. I was terrified, of course, the first time I showed the film in the community.

So they reacted to it well?
It? been very positive not overwhelmingly positive, by any means, but I haven? had anybody, since the film? been released, say ? told you so. You really ruined it for us.?/P>

What do you think is the biggest threat to this way of life?
I don? know if I?e ever been asked that before. I think, in general, the margins that exist where people can be free in this society are under attack right now. I think the biggest threat is comparable to the threat we face in society as a whole the freedoms we take for granted in this country. A crack down on civil liberties against society as a whole will similarly affect this lifestyle. [Train hoppers] are people who are not conforming to the lifestyle that is being promoted inside the mainstream media in this country. We?e told by the president of the United States that to consume is our patriotic duty. These are people who aren? buying. Anybody who? seen as subversive or dissenting against that at this point is probably a little threatened. I think that? the reality.

Originally published on

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