After the adventure of the screening tour in North America, I decided to do a sequel tour in Europe in the Fall of 2003. I was invited to write about the experience for DOX magazine and this article was published in the March 2004 issue:
The Ecocinema Festival in Greece presented an ideal setting for the European premiere of CATCHING OUT, my documentary film about several contemporary hobos who dissent against mainstream American consumer culture by traveling for free on freight trains. The explicit social and political climate of the festival created a welcome context for the film.
But the real adventure began when Mike and I left Amsterdam in a camper loaded with an abundance of groceries and headed toward Bielefeld, Germany. Mike is a Dutch friend [and future husband] who happens to own a fierce looking former riot police van that has been converted into a camper. On my shoestring budget, the CATCHING OUT European screening tour would not have been possible without Mike, his camper, and grilled Gouda sandwiches.
The venue in Bielefeld was an impressive squat called AJZ. About 50 people nearly filled the cozy kino, and they watched intently…quiet with evident concentration. During the Q&A, a few people asked questions but many seemed lost somewhere in translation. One girl described the film as “Relieving,” and another surprised me by saying she thought it was “typically American.”
We drove through the night to the screening at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, but it was mostly a disaster. A decent crowd settled into the plush seats, but technical problems made the DVD stutter, hiccup and eventually seize completely. People politely waited for the projectionist to restart the scene, but they fled before the credits ended. Except for Agnieszka who asked if we could meet for coffee the next day.
A freelance journalist and aspiring writer, Agneiszka was clearly seduced by the nomadic freedom of the trainhopping lifestyle. While the film presented a vision of America that she had never seen, her questions revealed an instinctive understanding of my reasons for making it. She wanted to know whether I consider trainhopping to be a uniquely American experience, and she asked if I intended CATCHING OUT to be a political film.
Following the technical difficulties in Warsaw, CATCHING OUT looked stunning at Dokument Kino in Berlin. Too bad there were only three people in the audience to witness it. At a punk club called Kafe Kult in Munich, CATCHING OUT was projected onto a white sheet not much larger than a TV screen. But apparently size doesn’t matter because this crowd definitely grasped the film.
Exactly halfway through the tour, we traded the comfort of Max, the camper, for the madness of the motorbike in the UK. In my memory the tour in England exists primarily as flashes of warmth and pauses like paintings between the shivering motorcycle miles. At Cube Cinema in Bristol the film-savvy audience focused on artistic rather than political concerns. But the screening in Manchester—part of a regular series called Beyond TV—attracted highly politicized viewers.
As I was talking with a New Zealander after the screening, I mentioned the radical freedom that I believe the film celebrates. He snapped, “Fuck freedom, I want to talk about rights.” He felt the word to be synonymous with selfishness, and I understood what he meant…the need to protect the welfare of the many from the greed of the few.
We returned to Amsterdam for a sparsely attended screening at Filmhuis Cavia, and then happily reunited with Max, the camper, for our journey to Copenhagen. During the drive, various conversations started to simmer in my mind. I realized that maybe when the girl in Bielefeld said CATCHING OUT was a typically American film she meant: a certain simplicity, attachment, idealism. Whereas European characteristics might include: an inherent complexity, humility, realism. And while the typical American viewer seeks clear distinctions, good and evil, black and white, European audiences tend to embrace various shades of grey.
In fact I started to see the distinctions in the context of WWII. In America, WWII had a linear plot of soldiers, heroism, victory. In Europe the war was a messy story of choices and repercussions. Families divided and strangers reconciled. Perhaps this legacy persists as American conviction and European relativity…in film as well as foreign policy?
The last screening of the tour took place in a stunning theater called Byens Lys in the squatted free zone of Christiania. Afterward, two guys approached me to offer their enthusiasm, and one of them described the film as “Pure resistance culture.” The other viewer admitted that he anticipated trainhopping to be some kind of extreme sport. And this highlights one of the themes of distributing CATCHING OUT that is consistent in Europe and America.
People who are unfamiliar with the trainhopping community tend to be the most enthusiastic viewers. I think it’s because they experience a shift of perspective that is similar to the first time a person hops a train. But the shift is different in Europe and America. European viewers are “relieved” to discover a culture of dissent within the US. Whereas the political ideas and social sentiments expressed in the film are often a revelation for American audiences.
Viewers at AJZ, Kafe Kult, the Beyond TV series, and Byen Lys probably anticipated some level of solidarity between the trainhopper scene and European squat culture. These venues drew substantial, radical crowds, but I often had the sense I was preaching to the converted. More mainstream cinemas like Dokument Kino and Cube Cinema drew less politicized viewers, but these audiences are clearly more difficult to cultivate. One big surprise for me was the complete lack of press…a stark contrast to similar screenings in North America.
Otherwise, the tour convinced me that the divide between Europe and America is becoming a deep chasm. Even previously unambiguous concepts like freedom and democracy have acquired a negative connotation in the context of corporate globalization and American imperialism. Nuances within American culture and the American populace are lost in a sea of animosity. But screening CATCHING OUT had the intended effect of communicating an alternative perspective of America, and European viewers generally admired the subversive patriotism portrayed in the film. This success fuels my desire to continue to promote the sharing of stories across political climates and social cultures.