“A group of troubled boys are on a perilous course towards jail until they meet up with the rough talking, free-wheeling jackaroo, Bernie Shakeshaft, and hit the road with his legendary dog jumping team.”
BACKTRACK BOYS is a new feature Australian documentary by Catherine Scott. The audience is thrown right into the action from the first frame. The setting is country New South Wales, there are numerous kids and a whole pack of dogs of various breeds. The kids, depending on the moment, are troubled or looking for trouble. Being around these youngsters and mentoring them, requires adults with extraordinary skills.
The boys are guided in various ways by Bernie, a white man who was taught tracking by indigenous elders in the Northern Territory when he was a boy. He has taken some of these teachings and applied them to the Backtrack program (Bernie is Backtrack founder and CEO). The ex-jackaroo explains how he was taught by a couple of old Aboriginal bushmen, “The elders would get the wild dingoes come right up to them in the bush and they would lay them down quiet in the shade like a farm dog.” This technique is shown to us early on as we see the boys bonding with their dogs – rescue animals – and learning to connect with them.
The public face of the program is the various shows, exhibitions and competitions the Backtrack boys are part of. At various country locations, they take the dogs through their paces. Locals are impressed to see the well-trained dogs jumping walls and doing competitive runs. This is amazing enough, but the organization and teamwork that goes into the human part of this is even more impressive.
As the documentary unfolds, we learn how many people and organisations Backtrack touches. Their base is Armidale, NSW and we see the teachers, mentors and volunteers who give time and knowledge to kids who need attention, wisdom, boundaries and love – and received almost none of these in their young lives. The boys come from many different backgrounds and parts of NSW, but as you hear their stories, violence and drug abuse are a common feature. A child who has experienced daily emotional and physical abuse, has no resources to cope with sitting in a classroom and learning. Bernie and the other Backtrackers come face-to-face with some very angry, damaged children and help them to find their way to some kind of calm and balanced way of life.
Catherine Scott is the veteran documentarian who wrote, produced, directed and shot the film. She followed the program for two years and we are shown the lives of particular boys in greater detail as they deal with the difficulties of learning self-discipline and their intermittent problems with police and the judicial system. Scott’s filmmaking experience gives us a layered tale that reveals other depths as we journey through it.
BACKTRACK BOYS tells the story of adults who give their energy, time and skills to other people’s traumatized children. It’s the story of children who have had to endure humiliation, abuse and abandonment. And it’s the story of how a community can evolve that cares, supports and loves its most vulnerable members. This is an emotionally stirring documentary, that is beautifully made and gives the audience much to dwell on. 100 minutes running time. (9/10)