As the opening scenes of train hoppers and tramps cross the screen, an assemblage of images culled from the many films that make up the Hobo Film Festival, I can’t help wondering how many of the black-clad, tattooed punks claiming the theater’s front rows have climbed into moving boxcars themselves. And then the film festival’s organizers make a brief introduction, asking the very question I was just mulling over, and at least half the audience lets out shouts of approval.
Though it’s doubtful I’ll ever hop a train (I’ve purchased tickets for many, and have read my share of railway travel adventure books, but in this venue that hardly earns me any credibility), just attending the Hobo Film Festival is a bit of a journey. Created by Burnsville, N.C.-based Agency Films, the collection of shorts and feature-length films all share the common thread of relating to rail roads and the people who traverse them. For free. And against the law. And often at risk of physical or legal peril.
“The railroad industry in America has played an immense role in the development and progression of our modern society,” states the independent film company’s web site. “Besides its most obvious role as a life line for supplies and sustenance to newly burgeoning towns and industry, it helped spawn an incredible subculture of people, the hobos and tramps of America. These hobos used the trains during the great depression in order to seek work, and a whole society of people grew around the railroads.”
The films in the traveling festival address these romantic hobos of days past: Roger Corman’s Boxcar Bertha deals with one of history’s most famous female tramps. But a significant portion of the imagery captured, often on cheap cameras and by amateur film makers, is of modern-day ramblers eschewing cultural values of money, status and excess in favor of material and philosophical freedom.
Sarah George’s feature film, Catching Out follows the lives of a handful of punks and self-proclaimed tramps. Some ride the rails obsessively, some hop trains occasionally and others ultimately leave the life behind. Traveler Lee states, “It’s one of the few genuinely American things, like jazz and having sex in cars.” Footage of Lee also reveals a subculture of DIY types living in rustic camps or inner-city squats and making due without jobs, cars or bank accounts.
“It’s easy to survive without the keys to a house,” Jessica, a member of the traveling punk community, notes.
George’s film, while long-winded at points, boasts gorgeous scenery, a lush score and professional polish. Other films, like four minute short Milwaukee to Portage are as gritty and rough-hewn as the travelers they document. Raphael Lyon’s CP Rail Kanada juxtaposes silent black and white footage with journal-style stream-of-consciousness voice over for a movie that comes off as dreamlike and simultaneously jarring. “I never liked hitchhiking,” he admits during his monologue. “It seems so inefficient.”
The festival’s collective films seem to draw a similar conclusion: Rail riding is a viable means of transportation. But no one, seeing the images and hearing the stories, could come away assuming hoboing was as simple as getting from point A to point B without anting up for a ticket. It’s a way of life, not for the faint of heart or those adverse to a little grime.
What the festival does offer is a rare look into a subculture that Agency Films organizers claim is not much longer for this world. Stepped up security measures, increased police attention, heat monitors in railway yards and enclosed boxcars make freight hopping more difficult each year. Still, hobo culture does endure, as witnessed by the annual Hobo Convention held in Britt, Ia. every year since 1933.
Like the subjects it depicts, the Hobo Film Festival travels the country this summer, winding up in Iowa for the August 9-12 the Hobo Convention. “Agency films has long been associated with the railways and has … made it their mission to preserve the history of the American train tramp,” explains press for the festival.
Showings are rather rough around the edges and run throughout the evening. Expect a few technical difficulties and plan to come and go during the multiple hours-worth of material. And, while viewers may not come away raring to hop on the next train, this festival is sure to touch the heart of any traveler.
For those who missed the Hobo Film Festival’s debut last night, catch the Films and Rock fundraiser tonight (Friday, July 6) at the New French Bar Courtyard & Cafe (12 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, 225-6445). See five films, hear five bands including Serpents, Chops, Dig Shovel Dig, On the Take and Mister Mean with DJ Joe Flash. 9 p.m., $5.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter