Boxcars at the box office

Travelling Hobo Film Festival explores drifter culture

The image of a boxcar criminal unwashed and probably high is exactly the kind of stereotype that Hobo Film Festival organizer Shawn Lukitsch is trying to avoid as he tours his unique collection of rail-riding movies. It’s a persistent one though especially when some films traffic in every cliché he’s trying to avoid.

“The loosest approximation is the ’70s blaxploitation films — this is like a trainsploitation film” he says of Wedding Train a film he was made aware of during one of the festival’s many tours. “[The filmmaker] plied the people in the film with malt liquor and narcotics and got [the film’s subjects] at their absolute worst. Supposedly there are people shooting up and smoking crack and breaking into shipping containers engaging in domestic violence and all kinds of wild stuff.”

There’s an understanding among those who ride freight he says that the whole operation needs to remain as low-key as possible. The kind of behaviour showcased in Wedding Train would not only be inappropriate it would lead to a crackdown on the lifestyle — something rail riders want to avoid at all costs. If the world of illegal train riding has been shuttered by practice though Lukitsch’s festival which began its Canadian leg in Montreal is an attempt to open the door.

“I encounter a lot of resistance to our event” he says of the festival which features the documentary Hobo by John T. Davis along with a collection of 15 short films. “A lot of people feel like the experience is exclusively theirs and so any kind of media attention that train riding gets is going to make it harder to ride trains.”

In the festival’s defense Lukitsch notes that the experience of riding trains has been documented as long as the practice has been around and several notable figures including William O. Douglas of the United States Supreme Court spent time on the rails. Lukitsch himself has been riding since 1994 having seen the advent of post-9/11 scrutiny and punk kids out for kicks (see “Oogles” in the sidebar). Three of the festival’s films in fact were contributed by his production company Agency Films.

Lukitsch is not alone in his desire to document the process as evidenced by the festival’s range of short films and a photo exhibition by Norwegian émigré Hans Hansen. Far from being a difficult part of the process Lukitsch says that finding material for the festival was often simply a matter of receiving unsolicited films searching YouTube trailers and following connections.

“A lot of these kind of fell in our laps really” says Lukitsch.

The results include contributions combining the wherewithal to ride and the willingness to document the process. A touring three-hour collection that’s already crossed the U.S. and is now wending its way through Canada the Hobo Film Festival has a nomadic nature

that’s eminently appropriate even if its name does belie a truth about modern rail riding. Expect no bindles here.

“The hobo is dead and gone” says Lukitsch. “He hasn’t existed since the ’50s or maybe the ’60s.”

The term refers to a very particular type of traveller and there are very definite delineations between those who ride the rails he says. “The hobo was a person who works and wanders the tramp dreams and wanders and the bum drinks.”

At one time railroads offered a way to tour broadly from one type of itinerant work to another from picking apples in Washington to harvesting wheat in the Midwest. With the death of the American itinerant worker remaining riders like Lukitsch are driven more by their love of the journey across America’s 100000 miles of track a life that’s reflected nicely as the festival continues to tour. When asked where he would fit in the spectrum of rail riding Lukitsch responds that he would probably be a tramp. A dreamer and a wanderer.