Riding the Rails

Director: Lexy Lovell, Michael Uys
Screenwriters: Lexy Lovell, Michael Uys

Institute History

  • 1997 Sundance Film Festival


In its extraordinarily tender account of the lives of teenage freight-train riders, Riding the Rails offers a visionary perspective on the presumed romanticism of the road and cautionary legacy of the Great Depression. From “middle class gentility to scrabble-ass poor,” the undiscriminating Great Depression forced 4,000,000 Americans away from their homes and onto the tracks in search of food and lodging. Of this number, a disturbing 250,000 of the transients were children. Through painstaking research and with tremendous sensitivity, the filmmakers relay the experiences and painful recollections of these now-elderly survivors of the rails. After sifting through three thousand letters in response to their call for memoirs from the former teenagers, Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell have compiled a deserving tribute to the memories and experiences of their unforgettable subjects.

Forced to travel more by economic necessity than the spirit of adventure, the film’s subjects dispel romantic myths of a hobo existence and its corresponding veneer of freedom. Seamlessly interweaving archival footage, personal photographs, and interviews, Riding the Rails recounts the hoboes’ trade secrets for survival and accounts of dank miseries, loneliness, imprisonment, death, and dispossession. Sixty years later, the filmmakers transport their subjects back to the tracks, where the surging impact of sound and movement resuscitates memories of a shattered adolescence and devastating rite of passage. What evolves is a heartbreaking portrait of transformation and loss in a land of bankrupt promises and vacant opportunities.

As we learn about the astonishing post-Depression fates of the now-eighty-year-old survivors, Riding the Rails illuminates the irrevocable repercussions of one very bitter chapter in American history. Striking in its detail and depth of emotion, Riding the Rails is that rare documentary that will inform, dazzle, and move its audience to tears.

— Rebecca Yeldham

Screening Details

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