Full disclosure – this film will have you crying within the first five minutes. And odds are, you won’t stop crying til the credits roll. Not only is Backtrack Boys an immensely powerful film, it’s also one of the finest documentaries of 2018.
Filmed over two years by director Catherine Scott, Backtrack Boys follows jackaroo Bernie Shakeshaft as he runs a youth program from his farm in Armidale, NSW. The program involves taking kids who haven’t had the best runs at life and getting them to help Bernie to train his troupe of dogs that he travels rural NSW with, showing audiences the abilities of the working dog. Yeah, look, even just writing those few sentences I’m getting a little choked up thinking about the scenes of young lads sitting with their dogs and getting the dogs to be peaceful and calm, and in turn, the kids learning how to be peaceful and calm themselves.
Bernie is a wonderful character to witness working with the boys who have come to his program. He’s calm, patient, and genuinely cares about the future of these kids. Many have stumbled into the world of drugs at a young age, or have lost the father figure that they need in their life, or maybe they’ve strayed down the path of crime and recklessness, and through Bernie’s guidance, he intends to help these kids break the circle of recidivism. But, from the outset, Bernie is clear that not every kid manages to break that cycle, and while it’s great to see kids go on and lead a productive life after entering his program, it’s even more heartbreaking when they stumble and turn back to crime, drugs, or violence.
Scott follows a group of kids as they engage with the BackTrack program, with each story being as hearbreaking as the last. Take Rusty for example – a rough as guts kid who’s had a rough shake of the world with his mum dying not long after he was born, leaving his dad to raise him by himself. Rusty swears as a way of letting off steam, alongside occasionally throwing things and the odd bout of aggression – all things that the BackTrack program aims to help kids with. One of the added benefits of the program, besides teaching kids self-discipline and communication skills, is that they are able to engage with other kids who are just like them. Rusty builds a relationship with Zac, a kid who knows what path kids like him usually lead (meaning, straight to jail), and is working hard to ensure he doesn’t end up there.
While Bernie doesn’t want to replace anyone’s dad, he does recognise that over generations, fathers have lacked the necessary resources to be the best dad they can. Rusty’s dad clearly loves his kid, and obviously wants to be a part of his life, but he knows he’s only able to do so much to help Rusty be a good person, and while his knowledge of how to raise a kid is limited, his heart is in the right place. The BackTrack program may not be able to repair generations of country blokes who have grown up not knowing how to be open and share their emotions, and in turn, deal with the complexities that come with feeling angry, upset, confused, or lost in the world, but it certainly aims to help the next generation be able to process these emotions better, and in turn, work to help break the cycle of troubled kids turning into violent adults.
Scott’s camera manages to capture some beautiful, intimate moments of the boys with their dogs. One kid sleeps in a swag with a dog right there by his side. Another kid, almost dwarfed by the Great Dane he’s paired with, works to teach the dog some fantastic tricks. Another tender moment has a group of kids sitting around and simply being open about their emotions. Or, when the boys take the dogs to the NSW government house and are introduced to the members of the NSW government, they can’t contain their shock that they’ve come this far, and are able to stand in government house. Backtrack Boys is littered with moments that will grab at your heartstrings and simply make you weep with joy and sadness at once.
For me, the kicker was a scene where the boys are helping the BackTrack dogs perform their agility training, and one dog struggles to get up over the wooden jump, with boys on both sides helping push the dog up, and in turn, pull the dog over the high structure. It’s a perfect representation of everything that Bernie has been working towards with his program. Boys being selfless and helping each other out in a time of need.
BackTrack is a program that should arguably be implemented all across Australia, as it’s clear that Bernie’s work is paying off, with the program having helped over 1000 kids over the last ten years, and the local crime rate dropping by more than 50%. The proof is in the pudding – this program works. While in Dubbo recently to support the launch of Leader Life, a new youth organisation that Bernie and the BackTrack Boys will be coaching, they met up with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry & Meghan – an event that will no doubt help boost the exposure of this great endeavour.
Backtrack Boys is a genuinely beautiful film. As someone who loves and celebrates Australian cinema, I’m so excited to see that this film exists. On top of that, as someone who loves Australia and wants to see a positive future for Australia, I’m moved that someone like Bernie Shakeshaft is out there helping foster a positive future for the next generation of outback Aussies. It says a lot about someone who dedicates their life to helping others – it’s an honourable thing to do.
This film will move you. It’ll make you cry. Heck, I’ll reiterate that I’ve shed a tear or two just thinking about the film as I write this review. Simply put: this is one of the best Australian films of the year.
Director: Catherine Scott
Featuring: Bernie Shakeshaft, Rusty, Zac