June 18, 2007
The Railroad All-Stars, 2006
Alternately humorous and heartbreaking in its candid and unflinching portrait of the exploited lives of low rate prostitutes living in the shantytown of La Línea in Guatemala City (an emblematic place of abject poverty built along the marginal buffer zones of railroad tracks that also evokes Ditsi Carolino's Life on the Tracks), Chema Rodriguez's The Railroad All-Stars affectionately, yet soberingly chronicles the adventures of the close knit community of these sex trade workers (including a nearly blind, elderly, retired prostitute who now earns a meager income selling condoms to the new generation of local prostitutes) who, frustrated by police inaction over crimes committed against their fellow workers, public apathy over their desperate economic plight, and marginalization in the justice system in such traumatic, life-altering cases as child custody, rape, and domestic violence, decide to form a soccer team in the hopes of competing in tournaments covered by the local media in order to increase public awareness and humanize the plight of these anonymous, faceless women and bring attention to the rampant discrimination that is endemic in their profession. Seeking to register in a first-round high school competition under the team name of "Las Estrellas de la línea" - The Railroad All-Stars (a name that accurately, albeit euphemistically, represents their station as prostitutes working "the line", that was chosen to conform to the league's naming conventions) - a local reporter senses the potential of the breaking story and sponsors the team for the tournament, a modern-day Cinderella story that abruptly ends after the first game when the opposing team's parents, enraged by their daughters' exposure to the women, demand their expulsion from the league under trumped up charges of vulgar language (an earlier sequence during the team huddle about continuing to play with dignity and remaining positive, even in the sidelines, refutes the baseless accusation) and assorted health violations stemming from their sordid profession (as several parents express outrage over their children's exposure to HIV and AIDS just from coming into contact with the women during the game). Denied from competing in the league but having captured the public's imagination thanks in part to a sympathetic press that has seized on the human interest story, the women begin receiving invitations for exhibition games from around the country - including an unlikely match-up against a policewomen's team - that will soon take the women on an unexpected cross-country journey into the figurative other side of the tracks of Guatemalan resort towns, cultural centers, luxury hotels, and ancient architectures, a reality far removed from the squalid slums that seems, for an all too brief moment, tantalizingly within their reach. Something of a bracing corollary to Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born into Brothels, The Railroad All-Stars is, above all, a thoughtful and poetic tale of self empowerment, as corporate sponsors fall away with the short attention span media coverage (or more appropriately, exploitation) of yesterday's news, and the women inevitably return to the familiar routine of their interrupted lives. It is this sense of spiritual enrichment that is reflected in the elegant image of the elderly peddler staring out the window of her rebuilt home on a quiet morning - a small shack made from wood beams and corrugated metal that had been painstakingly rebuilt by her devoted husband during her absence - a profound desire to linger in these understated moments of fleeting beauty and quotidian grace.