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
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
How has the reaction been to Catching
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.
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
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
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
What do you think is the biggest threat to this way of
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.