Former Jackaroo Bernie Shakeshaft knows dogs and young people. Some years ago he put the two together and found a magic combination: a combination which became the Backtrack Program. Run on the outskirts of Armidale, Backtrack takes young people, mostly boys, who are on the way to, or often have already spent time in, custody, and seeks to turn their lives around. Based around an award-winning dog-jumping team, Backtrack feeds, houses, educates and believes in, the most troubled youths, most of whom have been given up on by their communities.
Director Catherine Scott spent two years with the program, filming and interviewing participants and others, finally cutting what must have been hundreds of hours of film, into a 100 minute feature.
This is a sneaky documentary. It begins with sweet young boys being taught to work with cute dogs. Personally, I wondered how 100 minutes of cuteness was going to keep me awake. Then within 15 minutes I was sobbing, and basically, with the occasional break, I didn’t stop for the whole 100 minutes. Admittedly I am a sook, but believe me: this film will get you.
Far from being a promotional video for the program, this film makes us witnesses to failure, heartbreak and frustration. Yet through it all, Shakeshaft and his team refuse to give up on any child. The work becomes a cry of anger at our juvenile justice system, and at our short-sightedness as a society when it comes to young offenders. Shakeshaft says “We’ve got three jobs: keep the kid alive; keep him out of jail; help him chase his hopes and dreams.”
Scott’s direction is impeccable. She was privy to moments of visceral vulnerability, and allowed her camera to passively bear witness. Through her two years of filming, she managed to capture several narratives, as well as paint a portrait of the often untold lives of the children we give up on.
This is one of the most moving and important documentaries to be made in Australia for the last 20 years. Or maybe ever. This is profound, extraordinary film-making. This is what a camera is made to do. These are the stories we need to hear.
Please, see this film. You will not be the same afterwards.
Backtrack Boys screens as part of the Adelaide Film Festival on 15th and 20th October. It will then have a theatrical release on 25th October.
See the Adelaide Film Festival site here.
Learn more about Backtrack here.