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Film Review


Man's relationship with horses goes back to antiquity. There is some evidence of Cro-Magnon man domesticating horses, and clear evidence by 4000 BC of Black Sea peoples riding horses. Etruscan and Greek images of men on horseback are iconic, yet it is hard for people in this century to appreciate how much human culture and history have been changed by the horse. Even today, the horse looms large in American culture, and not just in cowboy films.

Buck Brannaman, a legendary horse trainer who is known for his work with difficult horses, is the subject of "Buck", an extraordinary documentary film by Cindy Meehl, a woman's clothing designer from Connecticut. Even more surprising, this very accomplished work is Meehl's first film. She first met Brannaman at one of his horse clinics about 8 years ago, and realized immediately that this man had a special talent, a ability to calm and tame often unruly and sometimes dangerous horses. Brannaman had a difficult childhood, the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, and a mother who died when he was very young. His father trained his two sons to do rope tricks, and they traveled with him to rodeos to perform, Buck at four and a half. After his mother's death, his father became more abusive, beating the boys badly, until a school coach saw whip marks on Brannaman's back and called the local sheriff. A friend of Brannaman, describing the abuse on screen, becomes choked up and can barely continue. The boys were reared by a foster family, and his foster mother, still with a real sense of humor, appears on screen.

Horses are, or at least were, often trained by abusive techniques. But Brannaman realized that kindness and empathy are more effective, and began to use those in dealing with horses. He now travels 9 months out of the year across the country, doing 4 day horse clinics. Meehl filmed for two years at many of his clinics and what she observed was astonishing. He is billed as someone who helps people with horse problems, but as he and the film so rightly observe "I help horses with people problems". Brannaman's uncanny ability to calm difficult horses, and to have them end up following him around the ring after a short time, continually amazed experienced horseman. He insists that horses must trust, and his techniques are focused on building that trust. To watch him on a horse is like watching a ballet. He has the horse cantor sideways, back up, and do the most graceful things, all of which seem so natural. He lessons at his clinics are as much applicable to life as to training horses: "take responsibility and don't make the same mistake again". He is patient, never becomes angry at a horse, and his empathy shines through in everything he does. He seems to have a unique ability to give people hope and inspiration. Brannaman is married, with three daughters, and his youngest, Reata, travels with him in the summer helping him at shows and clinics. The film doesn't mention the other two daughters, but clearly Reata is much like her father.

Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" was based on Buck Brannaman. Brannaman was hired as a consultant, and Redford discusses how he met and hired him. Redford gives an amusing account of Brannaman doing in 20 minutes what Redford's horse handlers had tried unsuccessfully to do all day. As Redford says: "he [Brannaman] is the real thing."

Toward the end of the film, a woman brings in a horse that is wild and has attacked people, including her. The story emerges of the foal's mother dying before the baby was born. The horse probably suffered brain damage due to oxygen deprivation at birth. "We pulled him [out of the mother]". The scenes of Brannaman attempting to calm the horse are riveting. Brannaman is critical of the owner because her horse is still a stallion, with her 18 (!!) other stallions. He suggests that she has some serious personal issues, and she begins to nod and cry. Then a shocking thing happens, and it is clear that the horse must be euthanized. But even then Brannaman refuses to force the horse into his trailer, saying "give him time". It is a powerful, haunting sequence.

Meehl has made a lyric, beautiful film about an extraordinary person. A man who, although severely abused, became determined to become the opposite of his father and not pass that abuse on. Brannaman observes that "some who are good at this are tortured souls." Meehl doesn't pursue that, which might have included his thoughts on being away from his family for all but 3 months every year. The film is so rich and uplifting, yet clear eyed. It is short, only 88 minutes, but every minute interesting. "Buck" is a truly American film, in the best sense, and I loved it thoroughly. Playing at the Embarcadero Cinema.

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