Documentary film-maker Catherine Scott is currently travelling the country promoting her already critically acclaimed feature, Backtrack Boys. Despite a grueling schedule, she kindly squeezed in a chat with Glam about her incredible career and her two years filming the Backtrack program, which works with young offenders, or those at risk of offending.
Although a highly respected documentary director and producer, Scott’s early career trajectory was outside of the norm.
I was basically kicked out of school. So I relate to these kids in that sense. I did a graphic design course and then won a scholarship to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York. After that I joined a group called Paper Tiger Television, which was a video arts group doing a weekly show on the public access channel. We did a lot of deconstructing the media, which everyone does now, but back then it was quite an edgy thing to be doing. Then we moved into covering social movements. So I was like a kind of media fringe dweller.
Slowly moving into documentary making, Scott made an acclaimed series about the criminal justice system in the US. This lead to her finding out that many Australian prisons had been privatized, and were being run by American corporations. Upon her return to Australia she took up this topic with her camera. And has never looked back.
Despite many years working as a producer/shooter for such august shows as Dateline and Foreign Correspondent, it is as a freelancer that Scott has perhaps done her most interesting work, including Scarlett Road, following a sex-worker who specializes in clientele with a disability.
I like to do stories about people who are misrepresented or misunderstood or are outsiders in some way: maybe because I personally identify, or because I find what’s happening in that space really interesting.
Her current work, Backtrack Boys, looks at the Backtrack program run by Bernie Shakeshaft, where he takes the most marginalized kids (mostly boys) and trains them to be part of his dog-jumping team. Prior to this feature, the program was not widely known outside of Armidale, where it is based. So how did Scott come across this remarkable story?
It was at a party of a friend of mine who is a film maker. I was talking to someone about my diabetic son and how I was thinking about getting an assistance dog, and then we were talking about some of my work [on prisons] and this guy who knew Bernie put dogs and prisons together and said “Look you’ve got to meet this amazing guy”. As soon as I heard about him I thought “oh my god, this has just got everything that I love”. Literally, within two weeks of this conversation I was up there with a camera and I started filming.
Originally considering the story as a possible half-hour doco, she quickly realised that there was material here for much more, the film unfolding to tell the story of three boys: Zac, Rusty and Tyrson.
Whenever you make a documentary you cast the film. And one of the first people I was very drawn to, and most people are because he’s very articulate, is Zac. He’s very insightful about his story but also about the other kids’ stories. He can really see what the big picture is. If he’d had other opportunities he would have been a scholar. And then Rusty turned up and I literally filmed him on his first day. He was a wild little boy but I could see in a just a short period of time how Bernie was getting through to him. And he ended up becoming quite a major character. Then after about 9 months I went up to film Rusty as he went to court, and I met Tyrson who was supporting him.
Yet at the heart of it, is the charismatic ex-jackaroo who started it all.
Bernie is just a regular guy who is trying to fill the gap in a very pragmatic way. The way he listens to these kids is extraordinary. He has the line “you can’t get kicked out of Backtrack.” These kids have spent their whole lives getting kicked out of something: kicked out of school, kicked out of home, kicked out of skate-parks, kicked out of shopping malls. That’s what they know. So Bernie tells them they can’t get kicked out: they can only choose not to be there. And you see them come round. As the mother of two little boys I feel like I learnt a tremendous amount just in terms of how to communicate to my own kids.
Shakeshaft’s program has reduced crime in the local area by over 50%: an extraordinary achievement which gives hope to the idea that there are effective alternatives to the juvenile detention system. Although Scott has nothing but praise for the work she saw taking place in that space.
The Acmena Juvenile Justice Centre were incredibly supportive of this film, giving me amazing access. They’re working so hard in there to get these kids out: they’re devastated every time they see a kid come back in. It breaks their heart.
And in the way of great documentaries, this one tells the story of individuals, but which resonates with society as a whole.
So many of the issues we’re facing today are played out in the very intimate lives of these young people: domestic violence; drugs; unemployment; general displacement.
Commentators and film-goers alike are already gushing over this film and sales of tissues have gone through the roof! What is it that is so moving audiences, before the film has even officially opened?
It’s a documentary but it does really feel like a drama. It’s a roller coaster ride but at the end of the day people feel very moved and very inspired and I think we need a lot of that right now in the world.
Backtrack Boys officially opened on 25th October and is screening at various cinemas around Adelaide.
Click here for more information about the film.
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