Taking a look at the issue of wild mustangs and rangeland management through the eyes of four Texas A&M graduates is the Hot Docs Audience Award-winning film, “Unbranded.” Directed by Phillip Baribeau and Executive Produced by Cindy Meehl (“Buck”), “Unbranded” is a stunning film set against the Great American West as these four young men unburdened by jobs or commitments, take a 3,000-mile wilderness journey from the Mexican to Canadian border with 16 wild horses. Their goal is to raise awareness about the mustang plight, while experiencing a grand adventure of their own.
“Unbranded” kicks off literally with a “kick.” Opening in the cacti patches in Arizona, the riders try to assist the afflicted horses hit with the painful spines. But in trying to pull out the spines, a rider gets dangerously kicked. From the start, this journey may be romanticized, but it’s also going to be perilous.
The film then reverses back to the start where we meet the four riders, including ringleader and nature lover, Ben Masters, followed by Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover and Ben Thamer, all of whom have riding experience. They are in the process of adopting mustangs from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Kansas that will then be trained over a period of four months, first by professional horsemen and then by the young riders. Once the horses are “trained” (and that is a loose interpretation since they all will have tics), the journey begins.
For the 3000 miles of mapped terrain (which sometimes doesn’t match nature’s reality), Masters and director Baribeau chose to create a cinematic old West look for their documentary. For the equipment they chose a Canon C-500 which they rigged to the hard pannier on one of the horses, a smaller Canon DSLR rigged on the saddle horn, a number of Go-Pros on the riders, and a drone for aerial videography. The guys also wore wireless mics with an external audio recorder carried in a saddlebag on top of a horse known as “Luke the Audio Horse.” The thoughtfulness in the camera and audio rigging pays dividends with the exquisite-looking vistas, wildlife, and vast day and night skies.
One particular harrowing sequence of camera work is taking the horses through the very narrow passageways in, down, and out of the Grand Canyon. There’s a great sense of vertigo as any minute a rider or horse could misstep over the edge (or see a snake and spook).
Interspersed between the drama of traveling through the five states (Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana) is the balanced discussion regarding wild mustangs. Brought by the Spanish Conquistadors over 500 years ago, these animals are protected by the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. But as of January 2015, 47,925 Wild Horses and Burros have been rounded up and are living in Short Term pens, hoping for adoption. And as for those roaming the wild, over-population as well as overgrazing the land is a common occurrence, as is death and starvation. It’s an issue that these riders want to bring to light through the film, to show the magnificence and strength of these animals as well as their plight.
Of course such a strenuous journey is also a mental challenge for the four, especially between Ben and Jonny. There are personality clashes as well as differences of opinions resulting in yelling matches between the two, including a personal twist within the final miles.
But overall, “Unbranded” is a journey with heart and soul that is well told by the filmmakers, riders and horses, too. Hopefully horse lovers, BLM, and landowners will come together to discuss solutions for the mustangs that we can all live with. Wouldn’t it be awesome if one hundred years from now people will still be enjoying this 3000 miles of public land and parks with wild mustangs at their side.
“Unbranded” is 105 minutes and Rated PG-13 and screens Saturday September 26 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 as well as other select theaters.