by jeremy o'kasick for the twin cities city pages
april 2, 2003
Filmmaker David Eberhardt has just landed a sweet deal - for a rusty Volvo in Pensacola, Florida. This battered wagon will haul him - he hopes - across the U.S. to festivals screening Long Gone, his train-hopper documentary that won two awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in January.
A native of Minnesota, Eberhardt spent some seven years making the film - living along the rails, seeing the country through a boxcar doorframe, and trading tales with legendary tramps such as New York Slim and Dogman Tony. He hasn't had a true home in four years: His most recent sleeping quarters have been in a Santa Monica editing suite where, even after Slamdance, he continued to labor over Long Gone. Eberhardt still considers himself a Minnesotan (he grew up in Forest Lake and Hopkins), and will appear in person to introduce the movie at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. He describes the Twin Cities as something of a hobo meeting hub, and gives equal praise to the area's burgeoning film scene. But a quick pass through his old stomping grounds isn't likely to cure Eberhardt of his wanderlust.
"Riding trains is addictive," says the 37-year-old filmmaker, speaking on the phone from his hotel room near the Florida Film Festival in Orlando. "When you realize you can be anywhere in any state without a nickel to your name and work the system to keep on riding, that's when you know you're hooked."
Eberhardt started hopping trains as a film student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in the early 1990s, when he began to photograph tramps for a book of black-and-white stills. That project developed into a short student film, and later into a feature-length documentary, as he teamed with co-director Jack Cahill and fellow MCAD grad Greg Yolen, who served as cinematographer.
Eberhardt estimates that he spent more than two of the shoot's seven years on the rails, learning all the tricks of the tramp: jumping trains, dodging the railroad bulls, dumpster diving, street hawking. As the director became what he had beheld, the subjects in turn became quasi-collaborators. And as the movie grew in size and scope, Eberhardt got off the train long enough to work a hodgepodge of jobs and track down sponsors for completion funds. "Life is much easier on the rails than on someone else's doorstep with your hat in hand for the sake of a documentary," he says.
Following the crisscrossed narratives of seven tramps, Long Gone is fueled by a rugged original soundtrack from Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. (Besides helping to score funding for the project, Waits would use some of the rail-riding tunes for his comeback album Mule Variations.) Juggling multiple film stocks and styles, from Super 16mm to digital video, and from grainy black and white to shots taken with filtered color lenses, Eberhardt and company have stylized their documentary to the extreme.
"It has become something of a voodoo soup," he says, adding that this is just fine by him. "No documentary is objective, and I don't buy that 'purist' cinema vérité shit."
For the most part, the fancy camerawork enhances the stories told along the tracks by the hobos themselves, as Eberhardt wisely remains unseen and unheard. Some, like Dogman Tony, are lifelong riders who still run from ghosts of dead loved ones and struggle to make commitments. Others, like the teenaged Jessie, explore unknown territory and themselves, trying to maintain ties and overcome drug abuse. The film's greatest strength lies in the portrayal of compassionate bonds between the tramps, and in the revelation of their personal vulnerabilities. Along the way, Long Gone manages to ride right past romantic notions of freight trains and degrading stereotypes of the people who ride them.
As for his own six-month tour of the film-fest circuit, Eberhardt hopes to finalize deals with cable TV companies to broadcast Long Gone in the U.S. and Europe, and to publish that long-planned book of his train-hopping photographs.