First-time documentary filmmaker Jack Cahill still remembers learning hobo sign language from his third grade teacher. What seemed superfluous at the time, Cahill put to good use during his seven years hopping freight trains with collaborator David Eberhardt to film the documentary Long Gone, which chronicles the lifestyle of modern hobos.
Shot in cinema verite style, the film neither romanticizes the freedom of the tramps, as they prefer to call themselves, nor sensationalizes the substance abuse and violence that typified media coverage of hobos during the nineties. Instead, it offers an insider’s glimpse of that world through the eyes of seven tramps, and hints at the wanderlust of the filmmakers.
“I was definitely a train fan as a kid,” Cahill says. Railroad tracks ran across his neighbor’s yard, and he drew pictures of trains in school. While attending Loras College in Iowa, Cahill researched and wrote about hobos. He read extensively on the subject but was most intrigued by Jack London’s story, The Road.
With a degree in marketing (and an English minor), Cahill worked as an advance agent for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Feeling burnt out, he decided to hop trains for a summer before looking for a new job. “I ran away from the circus to join the hobos,” he says. The following summer, he went back out on the rails.
Cahill then moved to New York, where he learned darkroom techniques working in a film lab and taught himself photography by reading books and experimenting. He later learned filmmaking in the same way. During his third summer riding rails, he brought a camera and photographed the sites and people he encountered, intending to produce a book. Cahill soon heard about another guy doing the same, David Eberhardt. “Your reputation really precedes you out there—especially if you’re a guy with a camera,” Cahill says.
Eberhardt hopped his first freight train at the invitation of a friend, as a media arts student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He brought a camera and was gone for the summer. He says he had “all these romantic ideals about it.” Despite the tempering of his initial enthusiasm, Eberhardt was amazed by the vistas of the Western Rockies seen from a boxcar. “When you can sort of travel around the country at will with no money, it makes it really hard to stay in one place,” he says.
Eberhardt met groups of tramps along the way, and they always befriended him. He began photographing tramps in 1990, and lived as they lived—jumping trains, panhandling, and harvesting dumpsters. When he returned to the rails in the summer of 1991, Eberhardt brought a video camera. He began shooting a student film project called The Highline, completed in 1994, which provided Eberhardt with valuable experience and connections. For example, Eberhardt contacted singer-songwriter Tom Waits for permission to use a song, which he got personally from Waits, and the two remained in contact. Waits later introduced Eberhardt to Don Hyde, who became one of Long Gone’s executive producers. The songwriter also provided original music for Long Gone, and his attachment to the film helped with raising funds and getting the film noticed.
After Eberhardt finished school, he and his would-be photographic rival Cahill met through an older tramp and mutual friend, Joshua Long Gone—who also provided the title of their film. Initially the film was going to be about Long Gone and his traveling partner Horizontal John. Cahill and Eberhardt secured funding for the shoot and set out with a rental van equipped with a Super 16 camera package and cinematographer Greg Yolen. This first shoot lasted about three weeks and yielded some of the most striking images in the film, including a long shot that tracked Long Gone and Horizontal John riding on the back of a train.
But the project soon encountered problems. Horizontal John died a few months after they finished filming. “When one of your two subjects dies, everybody kind of runs for the hills,” Cahill now jokes about the project’s funds falling through. The filmmakers knew they did not have enough footage for a feature-length film, and initially considered shaping what they had into a short. But neither was satisfied with that idea.
Instead, they decided to continue the project with other tramps they knew. They chose Dogman Tony and New York Slim, compelling tramp leaders with something to say. Later they included the younger generation of train riders. Cahill and Eberhardt were on their own, without funding or a crew, following new subjects, and never sure what story they had.
“It always varied because of money. That was always the deciding factor,” Cahill says about the shoot. A little bit of everything was used in the film—16mm, Super 16, Hi 8, 35mm, and digital video—in black and white and color. The variety of film stocks and ten cameras used gives scenes different textures. To save money, they filmed interview sequences on DV and conserved film stocks for cinematic action and scenery. They carried their equipment—all 100-150 pounds—with them, jumping trains and traveling with and as tramps. Shoots lasted from several weeks to a few months at a time and covered twenty-two states and parts of western Canada.
In the seven summers and three winters of filming, Eberhardt figures they spent a solid two years on the rails and traveled more than thirty thousand miles. They collected more than two hundred hours of footage, were arrested once, and got three tickets for trespassing.
After years on the rails with the tramps, editing the raw material presented a new set of challenges. They often struggled with what to include in the film. “It’s really tough to be objective about a friend when you’re showing their life,” says Cahill. During the process, he asked himself, “Did I serve them well? What are they going to think of this? How have I affected their life?” He admits there were times the cameras were turned off in their friends’ interest. Despite the intimate details revealed about their lives in the film, the tramps that have seen it, including Dogman Tony and New York Slim, felt their story had been told well and told honestly.
Not only tramps have responded to the film. At its premiere at this year’s Slamdance International Film Festival, Long Gone won awards for best documentary and best cinematography. It was also well-received at festivals in Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Nantucket. “We are in the courtship dance with the distributors,” Cahill says, and things look promising for Long Gone. Actress Holly Hunter championed it and hosted screenings in New York and Los Angeles, giving the film an additional boost.
The future for the filmmakers is also bright, but since they both value personal freedom, they will likely be apart when Long Gone runs its course. Cahill has been working on his photography from the rails to complete the book he intended to do years ago. He also has other film ideas in the works, documentary and narrative. “I’d like there to be a little commerce in my next art,” he jokes, noting “the biggest drag about making these things is not having the money to actualize them.” He also wants his next project to be more focused and of shorter duration than Long Gone. And Eberhardt has been planning to live on the Mississippi River on a boat to document his next subject. On the river he says there is a community of drifters with even more freedom than the tramps riding the rails. And Eberhardt says, “I thought it would be a really cool way to spend three years of my life.”
Oneworld TV’s Rebel With a Cause
By David Alm
After thirty years of strategic planning and program development for some of America’s largest media organizations, Alyce Myatt is a true veteran of her trade. And like others who possess great talent, savvy, tremendous ambition, and that rare combination of moxie and skill, (few though they are), she is also unpredictable and inclined to take risks that some people might consider foolish.
Take her latest move last May, from the comfortable and prestigious post of vice president of programming at PBS, to multimedia editor at a fledgling startup, OneWorld TV, which was just over a year old. Representing the sole U.S. employee and one-third of the entire full-time staff, Myatt couldn’t have strayed further from PBS headquarters’ stratified complex in Alexandria, Virginia, where her position was like a beacon for media professionals worldwide. In other words, what others might spend their lives hoping to attain—Myatt left, for a job with as little security as any internet startup. Again, though, that rare combination of moxie and skill can easily turn risk into great success.
Launched in the spring of 2002, OneWorld TV is the latest branch of OneWorld International, a London-based nonprofit. Founded in 1995 by Anuradha Vittachi, a Sri Lanka-born documentary producer, and Peter Armstrong, who worked for twenty years with the BBC, OneWorld International is a network of more than 1,500 non-governmental organizations dedicated to informing the world of global news, without the bias of the corporate media.
OneWorld TV allows both amateur and professional filmmakers to upload short documentaries to its website, which are then categorized along with films on similar topics. Categories include child labor, war, HIV/AIDS, and even water. So far, it’s doing very well. In its first year, the site’s online community grew to almost 3,000 members from fifty-seven countries. Today, with low-bandwidth footage in fifteen different languages and instructions for adding subtitles, OneWorld TV can potentially reach anyone with dial-up access to the internet. Not bad for a startup.
Still, for someone whose previous credits include production, writing, and direction for mainstays such as 20/20, Nickelodeon, CBS, the Smithsonian, and New York’s Channel 13, Myatt’s new job might seem like an anomaly within an otherwise conservative career. That is, until you learn that she actually helped build many of those mainstays from scratch, and that if they are now household names, it’s because of her.
“Jobs are jobs are jobs,” she says with a certain rebellious confidence. “Whether I’m working for OneWorld, PBS, or MacArthur, what’s really important to me is having good relationships with the filmmakers. We only come this way once, so it really matters what each of us does and not what the company is. It’s not so important who I work for. I am who I’ve always been, and I take that wherever I go.”
Fortunately for her, many companies want her precisely for that reason—particularly startups hoping to establish themselves in the hyper-competitive media space where television programs, magazines, and websites rise and fall in the blink of an eye. “I’m very comfortable out there in the unknown,” she says, suggesting that her post at PBS had grown too comfortable. “Because of how PBS was created and funded, it’s confined to a certain way of approaching its material. Personally, I wanted to rise to the challenge of carrying out a new space on the internet.”
In that new space, filmmakers decide what to shoot and what to post. No review board stands in the way. The OneWorld community, which ranges from a Mexican seamstress who has made a film about the poor living conditions in her town to a Filipino farmer who has documented the financial ramifications of a failed crop, determines the work’s relevance. But relinquishing control does not faze Myatt, nor does she worry that such an open policy will encourage people to post offensive material. “If you put something up that isn’t considered valuable, no one will click on it,” she says with conviction.
Myatt first met her new employer last fall, when OneWorld TV’s producer, Jo Hill, came to Alexandria to meet with PBS executives about posting material on the site. During one of their conversations, Hill mentioned that OneWorld was looking for a multimedia editor, and Myatt didn’t hesitate. She recognized that such a position would afford her the kind of flexibility and autonomy her previous position couldn’t.
As multimedia editor, Myatt is responsible for building the site and overseeing its editorial content—tasks that capitalize on her training at more than two-dozen jobs. But the position also draws on her own experiences. “I was raised in a very opinionated family,” she says of her upbringing in Montclair, New Jersey. “Everyone read the news and paid attention to what was going on, and everyone always had an opinion.” How she translated that into a career in documentary and news development is simple. “I watched a lot of TV,” she laughs.
After studying mass communications at Emerson College in Boston, Myatt dove immediately into production work at the Westinghouse Broadcast Company, where she remained for three-and-a-half years. She spent the following twenty-one years building her resume in brief stints at media organizations in New York City and Washington D.C., gradually amassing enough experience to start her own consulting firm. In her six years as president of Alyce Myatt & Associates, she further honed her skills and began adding cross-media and new media initiatives to her repertoire. Each move made her more valuable to the next employer, and all seem to have led to her new position at OneWorld TV.
As an independent outlet, OneWorld also allows Myatt to finally break away from corporate media, which couldn’t make her happier. “In this country, where do we get our information? People are reading The Guardian. It’s just crazy!” And though OneWorld TV is not entirely original—there are predecessors such as Cameraplanet.com, which launched in early 2000 and streams amateur documentaries—OneWorld TV is unique in that the site’s content is thematically grouped, allowing viewers to watch multiple films on the same topic from diverse perspectives.
“With the consolidation of media ownership, I think it’s critical that people have access to information, and that information should be reliable,” Myatt says. “OneWorld functions without having some broadcast distributor deciding if it’s worthy, or sexy, or if it’ll boost ratings.”
Myatt, and her two London-based colleagues Jo Hill and Rachel Stabb, are currently working on expanding the OneWorld TV community so that organizations and individuals might engage directly with each other based on location, interest, or simply common languages. They also plan to develop OneWorld TV’s association with the 1,500 NGOs that comprise OneWorld International, allowing both communities to share information and to further the nonprofit’s goal to loosen the corporate media’s stronghold on global news. Other initiatives include hosting workshops and giving presentations at schools, film festivals, and social/political forums around the world. They also plan to increase the site’s technical infrastructure so that mediamakers can begin uploading video, audio, images, and text from their mobile phones.
But however ideal the fit between Myatt and OneWorld TV, she is still the same unpredictable maverick who has left numerous seemingly ideal jobs time and again. “I just go with things as long as it makes sense to do them,” she says. Nevertheless, she and OneWorld have found a fortuitous match in one another—partly because they both operate with one of Myatt’s life philosophies. “Take chances because no one can ever say you’re wrong.”
For more information, see tv.oneworld.net