Bill Daniel was in his late 20s, working as a photo assistant in New York City, when he saw some pictures that changed his life. They were rail-car grafitti, mostly the monikers of train-jumping hobos ... an open secret for anyone who cared to stop and wonder about life beyond straight-job society.
"It really blew me away. I thought I'd found a portal into another world," says Daniel. Each tag conjured an enthralling stranger: "I felt such a rush and a connection to that person."
It was 1987. Daniel quit his job and jumped a train. The Dallas native was an aspiring filmmaker who'd always liked travel. Working largely with a hand-wound Bolex 16 mm camera, shooting one two-and-a-half-minute reel of black-and-white film at a time and tape-recording interviews, Daniel spent the next several years hopping countless railcars, criss-crossing the country, living the hobo life as he met the misfits and outsiders behind tags reading "Itchy Foot Stetson," "Palm Tree Herby" and "Colossus of Roads."
A theme emerged: the search for Bozo Texino, "the world's greatest hobo boxcar artist." Bozo's mark ... a round face clamping a smoke and topped by a big hat, its wide brim the symbol for "infinity"... is as ubiquitous as its writer's identity is shrouded in myth.
But Daniel's finished 55-minute video, "Who Is Bozo Texino?," engages a bigger mystery. You're one-third of the way through the luminous, gorgeously shot, rhythmically edited collage ... mountain vistas, steel rail couplings, hard-living faces ... before Bozo is even mentioned. The film, with its soundtrack of raw, acoustic roots music, is really about the journey, and those who announce themselves in paint markers or the traditional chalk.
"A hobo is not a bum, and don't you ever call me one in front of me or I'll get in your eyeball," says one hobo. "Bozo" finds the downside in replacing wooden boxcars with metal while nonjudgmentally giving a voice to people who have knowingly excused themselves from society.
"I like talking to crazy people because I am one," says Daniel by cell phone from Jacksonville, Fla. He's now 47 and living in the 1987 Toyota van in which he's touring "Bozo" to 25 cities, including a June 29 screening here hosted by the Jefferson Presents ... series.
After he stopped riding the rails himself, Daniel spent a decade fund-raising, editing and shooting additional footage. "Bozo" has screened, he says, at film festivals in Slovenia, Vienna, Rotterdam, Portugal and Buenos Aires. But his U.S. tour is word-of-mouth: coffeehouses, bookstores, punk-rock record stores and some nonprofit arts spaces.
That's the way it is, and the way Daniel likes it. "American festivals aren't really interested, and quite frankly, the feeling is mutual," he says. "Most of the people I would want to see my film would never go to a festival."