I had the privilege of seeing Buck this weekend at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival.
Buck Brannaman is a horse trainer who travels nine months out of the year and across the continent holding intense four-day horse training clinics on horsemanship. But Buck Brannaman is so much more than a “horse trainer” as this fantastic documentary shows us. Buck promotes and teaches a style of horsemanship that seeks to understand the horse in a way that is non-abusive and emphasizes learning about the nature of the horse. Those that have attended a clinic of Buck’s have come out of it with a whole new perspective on training and, in many cases, their lives. There is much crossover from Buck’s philosophy of horse training to that of raising children and his book, The Faraway Horses, has been said to be on professors’ reading lists in regards to learning about leadership.
Director Cindy Meehl takes us beyond the clinics and travels of Buck Brannaman and into the tortured and dark childhood that endured as a child trick roper. His mother died when he was very young leaving him and his brother, Smokey, to live with an incredibly abusive father. By the age of twelve, Buck and his brother were rescued from their father and put into a foster home. Buck’s lovely foster mother, Betsy Shirley, is a huge inspiration for her son and shares little anecdotes and tidbits of a young the Buck throughout the film. However, the emotional peak of the film was Buck recalling the first time he met his foster dad, Forrest Shirley. Buck remembers the tall and imposing figure that was his new father getting out of a pick-up truck and handing him a brand new pair of buckskin gloves. Buck, frozen with fear and who had never been given anything that nice, was silent and immobile at first, but due to the kind nature and patience of his new father, Buck gradually warmed up to him as they spent the day together repairing fences. This touching moment is beautifully paralleled by Buck’s own philosophy and practice of handling a young and untrained horse. Buck gradually gives the horse that sense of comfort and peace while at the same time gently letting the horse know who is in charge. “Be gentle in what you do, but firm in how you do it.”, buck says. This creates a relationship between man and horse stronger than ever before; a friendship.
With perfect pacing, Cindy Meehl and editor Toby Shimin from time to time cut to old photos or video footage of Buck as a young boy. It’s easy to see that the eyes in the grown man today are the very same in the face of the young Buck who endured so much. We, the audience, feel like we know Buck at this point. Buck is inspirational and full of hope. It is encouraging to see that someone can emerge from such an abusive past and not only become a decent human being, but also learn from this history of abuse and use it to shape a different path with his own family. Buck’s relationship with of his daughters shown in the film is proof of his loving nature as a father, a complete departure from his experience with his own. His characteristics as a husband and father go hand in hand with his philosophy of horse training, teaching his students to develop a relationship with their horse built on friendship and mutual respect.
However, Buck’s gentle way doesn’t make him shy away from confrontation. He is just as strict with the horse owner as he is the horse and can tell a lot by the horse owner based on the behavior of their horses. “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems”, says Buck. Buck Brannaman has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, which is essential to his line of work, constantly being on the road and dealing with animals. He has a quiet wisdom about him that is contagious and keeps clients coming back to his clinics over and over again
Buck took home the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Crossroads Film Festival in Cindy Meehl’s home town of Jackson, Mississippi as well as the Full Frame Audience Award. Buck is by far the best film I have seen at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival. One of the great things about this documentary is that it doesn’t divide its audience. There’s no underlying message or hidden agenda getting pushed behind the scenes. It’s about humans seeking to understand horses. It’s passionate. It’s real. It is a commentary on life. It is an underdog story. It is a road trip. It is motivational. But most of all it inspires all of us with the desire to foster more thriving relationships with those we love.
Check back later for my exclusive and enlightening interview with the director, Cindy Meehl.