“How the fuck did them c*nts get out?” 12-year-old Russell, arguably the breakout star of Catherine Scott's new documentary 'Backtrack Boys', wonders aloud when he notices some sheep walking free from their pen.
Just outside Armidale, NSW, a youth program called BackTrack Youth Works operates out of an old council depot on the edge of town. Bernie Shakeshaft, a former Territory jackaroo who fell into social work, offers unconditional support - it's a place for troubled kids to escape crime and drug addiction, safely continue their education and regain some faith in a world that has dismissed them.
Teams of kids are sent out to work in shearing sheds or on farms, fencing, drenching sheep or baling hay. They attain trade certificates and 85% of them have gone on to full time or part time work, often as apprentices, or into further study.
Shakeshaft had a job as a tracker, trapping feral animals and attaching radio trackers to dingoes for research projects. He got to work with Aboriginal bushmen who taught him how to track dogs. Utilising this experience, Shakeshaft made dogs integral to the Backtrack program, with each child given responsibility for a sheep dog. Every other weekend, a dozen or so kids and a truckload of dogs go off to agricultural shows across the country to compete in dog jumping competitions.
Director Catherine Scott’s documentary follows three of the boys (Russell, Tyrson and Zac) on a cross-country journey as they travel to rural shows with Bernie’s dog jumping team.
The boys at Backtrack usually arrive traumatised, with anger issues towards women and teachers. As Sarah Mills (both a woman and teacher) notes of the tiny, cowboy hat-wearing, cigarette-smoking Russell: “Little Rusty, ready to bite, ready to fight, ready to run amok.”
Tyrson comes from a family of drug addicts and alcoholics. In the program, he immerses himself in volunteer work and talking with the boys who feel uncomfortable talking to a psychologist. We watch as he regains a sense of his own potential. “I’m not just a fuckhead, like people thought I was,” he says.
The eldest of the three, Zac, originally came from Alice Springs, but drifted east to Gunnedah in NSW as his family fragmented. He acts as mentor and big brother for the other boys and is at the stage where he hopes to get a job. “A meaningful one,” hopes Shakeshaft, obviously proud of Zac’s growth. Zac, in turn, just wants to make the Backtrack team proud.
Not only is ‘Backtrack Boys’ a thoughtful mediation on Australian youth and (at times) a complete tear-jerker, but it's also a striking-looking film.
The dogs (“the right dog will pick the right kid”) fill a void in the boys’ lives left by abuse, absentee parents and fractured families. The dogs are trained to scale huge jumps at the same time as the boys are learning discipline and other life skills. “You never don’t let the dog get over the jump,” says Mills. “If you have to push the dog over to get the positive memory, you do it.” In much the same way, Shakeshaft and his team never give up on the boys, some of whom can’t avoid self-sabotaging and being sucked back into an unforgiving legal system.
Filmed over two and a half years by director, cinematographer and producer Catherine Scott, not only is ‘Backtrack Boys’ a thoughtful mediation on Australian youth and (at times) a complete tear-jerker, but it's also a striking-looking film. The aerial shots of the wide Australian landscapes, red and brown, serene and peaceful, are contrasted against the turmoil of the boys.
It’s impossible not to become emotionally invested in the story of the Backtrack team and Bernie Shakeshaft, his unconventional but deeply caring style, and the fractured young Australians he’s helping to heal.