BACKTRACK BOYS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Documentary

Director: Catherine Scott.

Backtrack Boys

A favourite on the film festival circuit, this inspiring and humane and heart-warming documentary shows that there are very real and effective alternatives to juvenile detention in helping turn around the lives of troubled teenagers.

In the northern NSW town of Armidale, jackaroo Bernie Shakeshaft has established a community-based organisation called Backtrack, which works with troubled boys who are on the path to crime and drugs and tries to turn their lives around. The boys are paired with dogs which they work with and train and also participate in a number of dog-jumping shows in rural towns. Most of the boys arrive with issues of anger management and a lack of trust in adults. Through working with these dogs the boys learn confidence, respect, trust, discipline and self-esteem, and also how to work well with others. The program, which operates out of the back of a local council depot, aims to keep them out of trouble and out of jail. Bernie and his small team offer unconditional support to these troubled boys.

Local filmmaker Catherine Scott first learned about Bernie and his program while attending a party and she felt that his work would be an ideal subject for a short documentary. But once she started to learn more about his work she felt it, and the individual stories of some of the kids in his care, deserved a full-length feature. Scott spent the better part of two years following Bernie and the boys around. She shot some 100 hours of footage, which she and her editor Andrea Lang have carefully shaped into what we see on the screen. There is some gorgeous cinematography here of the wide open country side, courtesy of Scott who also shot the low budget film.

Scott follows the stories of three boys, and their stories are quite moving. There is Rusty, a rough around the edges eleven-year old who is the most vulnerable and has a foul mouth and a quick temper, and he finds it hard to trust anyone. His mother died when he was quite young, and his father found it difficult to cope, so Rusty kept getting into trouble. Zac has been in the program for a while and takes on some extra responsibilities in working with the boys, but even he manages to fall off the straight path after he is rejected for a regular office position. And when we first meet Tyson he is already serving time in a detention centre. He comes from a family of drug addicts and alcoholics and a dysfunctional family background, but with help from the program he is turning his life around and integrating successfully back into the community.

Scott clearly has an affinity for stories about the marginalised elements of the community – her previous film was Scarlet Road (2011), which explored the life and experiences of Australian sex worker, Rachel Wotton, who specializes in working with an often over-looked clientèle – people with disability. Her film was released around the same time as the drama The Sessions, which starred Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate who developed a relationship with a quadriplegic played by John Hawkes.

Scott clearly treats her subjects with compassion and understanding and she manages to draw out their personal stories. The boys come across as articulate and quite aware of their situation and their failings. And Bernie himself comes across as patient, understanding and supportive, a surrogate father figure for most of the boys.

The program is not perfect as some kids do regress, but the 85% success rate speaks for itself. The crime rate in the area has declined. Not everybody in the community supports Bernie’s work, but as he says somewhat wryly, they do enjoy living in a safe town. The success of the program saw several of the boys invited to the New South Wales parliament and Government House, where they represented themselves and the organisation in positive fashion. There is hope that a successful program like this can be expanded and attract more government funding.

★★★☆

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