The Healing Director Nick Barkla Talks About Joint Healing with Veterans and Retired Racehorses in This Interview

Nick Barkla’s The Healing is a calming and powerful documentary about Scott Brodie and the horses he re-trains with the assistance of veterans who are living with PTSD and the impact of trauma on their lives. In a joint act of healing, Scott assists the veterans to help adjust the retired racehorses to a life after racing, in turn allowing the veterans to heal their mind. This visually stunning and emotionally enriching documentary is a powerful example of Australian documentary filmmaking. Nick’s previous work as an actor includes the films Em 4 Jay, Tom White and Embedded.

In this interview, Nick talks about where the concept for The Healing came from, what it meant to play the film in front of a Royal Commission, and what his interest in documentary filmmaking is.

The Healing screens alongside Cuba My Soul as the closing night film of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 31st at Cinema Nova in Melbourne. Tickets are selling quick, so make sure to pick them up early to avoid disappointment.

Visit The Healing website for more information.

This interview contains discussions of PTSD, trauma and mental illness.

This is a really wonderful documentary. I thought it was quite a beautiful and gentle look at both mental health but also how we can help those who deal with PTSD, deal with trauma. How did you come to this story?

Nick Barkla: A friend of mine who’s a writer, we were talking about veterans and some of the problems they had readjusting to civilian life when they left the military. It was in the news a lot. We’re going back six years. There was starting to [be] a bit of media attention about veteran suicide and that type of thing. He said, “Look, I’ve written an article about a guy in Sydney called Scott Brodie who re-trains thoroughbred racehorses so that they have a second career and another chance at life after their racing careers are over. He has been involving military veterans and he’s been teaching them how to re-train the horses. It seems like he’s getting really great results.”

It turned out that Scott was very keen for someone to film what he was doing in the hope of getting some funding for his program down the track. He had been describing what he was doing to potential funders and they liked the idea of it, but because they couldn’t see it, it was a kind of intellectual idea and people would say, “That sounds great. Have you got anything you could show us?” And so he was saying to my mate, the writer, “Look, if you’ve come across any filmmakers that would like to shoot some footage of what we’re doing, it’d be really helpful.”

He mentioned it to me, and then he put me in touch with Scott [who] said, “Look, I’ve got a course starting in two weeks’ time. I’ve got about five or six veterans that are going to be on and a couple of horses. There’s an opportunity there if you want to come and film.” And I really liked the idea. The mutual healing aspect is what really sold me on it. My cousin is an equine therapist and so I knew that horses could be very good for troubled people. But I really liked the idea that what Scott was doing also went further than that in that the people were really good for these troubled horses. Storytelling-wise, I thought there’s a really good thing going on here. I got a crew together, we got up to Sydney, and we filmed that five-day course that you see a lot of in the film.

It’s quite beautifully shot. Can you talk about how you went about organising the cinematographers?

NB: The cinematographer Matthew Chuang has to take a lot of credit for that. He was a friend of mine and we were looking to work together on something and I told him about this opportunity. I said “Look, I really don’t have any money.”

I had shot a documentary previously and I shot a lot of that myself. I’ve been an actor for 20 years, I’m certainly not a DOP, and I use my brother’s 5D still camera [with] the video component. I recorded sound myself. Very ‘do it yourself’ rough film. So I knew I didn’t want to do that.

I knew that if I was going to go into the country and film thoroughbred racehorses in that type of environment with the sort of troubled faces of some of these veterans, I really wanted it to look beautiful. And so I spoke to Matt, and he was great. He really embraced the idea [and] got a fantastic crew together. We had two or three DOPs, we had two Alexa mini cameras and two sound recordists.

It was quite a big crew, certainly the biggest crew I’ve ever worked with as a director. We wanted to make the film look as cinematic as possible. We used a lot of slow motion and a lot of close-ups. We were really trying to capture something that had a really beautiful feeling to it, because of the environment and the horses. When you’re on that property, you really sense like, “Oh God, this is an amazing place to be.” I wanted the film to give the viewer that that sense that they’d been there and to come away with those types of feelings.

When was it shot? What I love about the visual style is it looks like it’s shot in wintertime.

NB: Yeah, well, it is. It was interesting. I’m in Melbourne, Victoria, and this was shot in Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, [in] June 2016. That’s when we shot the first part of the film. And it was winter, and it had been raining really heavily. I’d never been to that part of the world and I don’t think the crew had either. We were blown away by how lush and green the whole place was.

We actually arrived a little bit late on the Monday because the course started on a Monday and we were anticipating getting there on a Sunday afternoon, setting up over that night. But it rained so heavily the day before that the little flood bridges flooded, and we couldn’t get onto the property on the Sunday. We had to wait for them to recede. So it was a really lush quite wet environment which was great for the film, actually. You think of the Australian bush as a drier harsher place. But this was sort of the opposite of that really. And they had this amazing river that ran through the property that almost had a rainforesty feel [with] these enormous ferns, very different to a typical Victorian bush landscape.

[There] is a quote in the film: “Where there’s fear, there’s no education.” This is a film that is about being calm and peaceful. We’re talking about the landscape and how that reflects the calm and the peacefulness of the property there. Can you talk about how to create that calm as you’re directing and documenting the footage and in the editing stage as well?

NB: Scott was very clear and we agreed that the priority of the course was always the veterans and the horses. Our job was to really stay out of the way as much as possible and to be as unobtrusive as possible. So we tried to be quiet, we really tried to stay in the background as much as we could. There’s a real sense of quite beautiful solitude and quiet out there, and I think that informed the way we interacted, the way we shot, the way we even recorded sound. We wanted a lot of natural sound from the environment to be through the film.

Because [when] you get away from the city, you get onto a property like that, it’s like your senses take a little bit to adjust, but then you do start hearing animal sounds from half a kilometre away that you’d probably never pick up in the city. Like the breath of the horse starts to become a real thing that you start to pick up on in quite a sort of intense way.

The veterans were very quiet as well, particularly at the start of the course. They are very introverted, they were very solitary. Even though they were in a group, they very much kept to themselves until they started to loosen up a bit and interact more. Even though Scott’s very much in control of the whole thing, his whole demeanour too is quite calm and steady. I think those things combined told us how we needed to be around everyone in terms of shooting.

When it came to the edit, it was pretty obvious that the film was going to have quite a meditative slower pace. We were aware of that even when we were shooting. This wasn’t going to be a film that had a lot of sharp fast cutting. It was going to sit in silence and sit in a meditative space sometimes. We embraced that in the edit. We were “Look, I don’t know if people are going to be bored or if they’re gonna really enjoy it.” There’s whole minutes go past where you’re just watching Scott work with a horse, and he’s just trying to get it to do something. Or one of the veterans — there’s a moment there where Max spends quite a bit of time trying to get a horse to put its foot upon on a stump. And when he does, it really lights him up. It’s this quite beautiful moment for him. And I thought, “Well, that’s a big moment of drama for this guy. In his journey, that moment’s really something.” Then I thought, “Okay, so I’m making a film here where a very dramatic thing or a very emotional thing is getting a horse to put its foot on a stump.” Which seems like not a life or death situation, you know?

It was a very interesting journey editing the film with my editor, Sara Edwards, who did such a wonderful job. She’s a very sensitive intelligent person so she really brought a whole lot of empathy and feeling to it, which I really appreciated.

Did that sense of calm also help when you’re sitting down to talk with the veterans themselves about their own stories and help create that safe space that they need to be able to tell these very traumatic stories?

NB: When I started filming, I didn’t know any of the veterans. I’d never met them before. I met them as we were filming day one, which is probably not an ideal way. If I’d had more time, I probably would have spent more time with them prior. So I didn’t know them and I didn’t know their stories, I had no idea what their traumas were. I was assuming that they would mostly be combat-related war trauma. And as I discovered, that wasn’t the case.

In terms of sitting down with them, I didn’t do those interviews until about the middle of day three. For the first couple of days at least, we just got to know each other. We had chats around the campfire or I’d have a chat to them over coffee. To be honest, none of them really wanted to do those interviews. I kind of put it to them, “It’s completely fine if you want to talk about stuff. And it’s completely fine if you don’t.”

I said, “But the value of talking for the film is that we give an audience an understanding of what you’ve been through. And through that, all sorts of good things can come out for veterans that see the film, who feel like ‘Shit, that’s similar to my story, I can relate to this person.'” And it also builds empathy for the person who hasn’t been through that type of trauma. If they struggle to imagine what it’s like, those stories give you a pretty good idea of what some of these people are dealing with.

And so each of the veterans they really embraced [that] there’s a larger purpose here for telling these stories. It was really like their generosity and their courage in saying, “Okay, well, I’m going to share some of the stuff I’ve been through,” which was amazing. It was just me and them sitting opposite each other at a table, and me asking some questions.

I remember Max was the first person we interviewed. And I remember we talked to him for about an hour, and when it finished, he was quite emotional and I thanked him and I looked around at the crew, and they all had tears in their eyes. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, this could be really moving for audiences.”

Is the film dedicated to people from your own family?

NB: It’s dedicated to my grandfather and my great-grandfather and his brother. My great-grandfather was injured in World War One, and then his brother was killed. And then my grandfather was badly injured in World War Two. My dad very narrowly missed getting called up for Vietnam. I’d always had an empathy for veterans and the things that they must go through. I know that my dad’s dad never talked about what he went through, even though Dad could see that it had a pretty profound effect on him. That generation particularly, I think, found it very difficult to talk about what they went through.

I can’t imagine that if you made this documentary back [then], those veterans would sit down and tell you these stories. Maybe they would, I don’t know, but I feel like we’ve come a fairly long way in terms of how people can express themselves and talk about this stuff. So it’s a personal touch to the film.

Is there a personal connection to wanting to share the story and share the importance of discussing mental health?

NB: Look, I’ve been really fortunate, I haven’t had any issues with mental health myself. I certainly have had friends that have suffered with anxiety and depression, not so much PTSD. I had been reading quite a lot of stories about veteran suicide, and I had just been talking to my mate about “Why does this number seem so high? What’s actually going on? And why aren’t they getting the help they obviously need?” I had a lot of questions around it, I guess.

There’s a Royal Commission into defence and veteran suicide on at the moment. And when we finished the film mid last year, there had been 44 Australian military deaths in combat since the war in Afghanistan began. And there had been something like 400 and something suicides. That was the statistic at the time. Roughly ten times more serving military personnel and veteran suicide than had been killed in combat.

But then they did another count because of the Royal Commission and they actually found that the suicide rate was much, much higher, and the actual numbers are over 1200 something now. We’ve gone back into the film and changed one of the last cards so it now says 30 times more. It’s a staggering number. And I’m very curious to see what will come out of the Royal Commission. Why is the suicide rate so high? What are some of the contributing factors? Why are people not getting help they obviously urgently need?

One of the veterans who appears in the film went before the Royal Commission to talk about their trauma, and they’ve mentioned that they’d found this guy, Scott Brodie horseman who had helped them a lot. Then the Royal Commission said, “Well, could we get this guy in to talk about what he’s doing?” Scott went before the Royal Commission, and he talked about the work he was doing. And then they wanted to see the film, which was a really good thing for us, because the they even played the teaser for the film during the livestream of the Royal Commission.

I remember saying to Scott about three years ago when it was obvious that there was going to be a Royal Commission, “We’ve got to get this film finished and we’ve got to play it for the Royal Commission so that they can see the work you’re doing, but they can also see and hear some stories of what these veterans have been through.” And he said, “Oh yeah, that’d be great.”

It was a really amazing day when he was sitting at the Royal Commission and then they played the teaser for the film. And they’ve since watched the film, and they are very, very supportive of it, which was fantastic.

We’ve got the closing night of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, but we’re also looking to do a screening at Parliament House in Canberra round about mid-September. We want to get as many politicians, DVA, RSL press, get them there to see the film on the big screen.

When you get it in front of the right people, hopefully it inspires some change or at least informs their decisions going forward. Playing at the Royal Commission is a really important and powerful thing, and it’s probably a bit of a rarity as well for filmmakers to have that kind of achievement.

NB: It was really cool. We have a website for the film, and after the teaser played during the livestream of the Royal Commission, we had a lot of veterans contacting us via the website saying “Where can I see the film? Where can I do this course?” Interestingly, when people contact us, it’s typically a wife or a partner or a parent of the veteran. It’s often not the veteran themselves because they’re really struggling. We get a lot of partners contacting us saying, “My boyfriend or my husband or my girlfriend or whatever are really in a bad way. They’ve tried all these things, they haven’t worked. We’d like to give this horse thing a go. Where can we do it?” I think we’ll get a lot more of that once the film is released, obviously.

Is there an impact campaign that will come out after the film’s release?

NB: There will be. We’re in the process of working out how and when we’re going to release the film in Australia. The film has just been sold, made its first TV broadcast sale to a channel called YLE in Finland. And we’re very close to making some other really big international sales. It’s going to be great to get this film out internationally as well. I’ve been very interested to see what the feedback is. Because you can start then sharing information from country to country, like “What are you guys doing there for your veterans and horses? And what are we doing here?” I think Scott will have a really good time with all that.

I want to talk about you personally now. Because as you’re saying, you’ve had 20 years of acting and now you’re moving into directing. Can you talk about the decision to make that transition?

NB: I don’t remember there being any one particular moment. For quite a long time as an actor, I’ve been thinking, “This is great and I love doing it and I still am doing it, but I do want to start telling my own stories as well.” I’ve been very attracted to documentaries for a long time. The thing about documentaries that I really liked is I typically don’t know anyone in the documentary. (laughs) I love going in there and meeting faces that I’ve never heard about, I don’t know their backstories.

With movies, it seems like it’s getting harder and harder now to watch a film and not be aware of the actor’s personal life or the products they endorse or the talk shows they’ve been on. I often find myself going much more quickly into the world of a documentary. And so I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll start seeing if I could make some documentaries myself.” The documentaries that I really like, they’re often typically structured like a drama film anyway, that sort of emotional dramatic journey in documentaries I’ve always loved.

The first documentary I made [Inside Fighter] was about a mate of mine who was a professional boxer. And he got a last-minute call up to fight for the world title in America against an undefeated fighter. Now he was at the end of his career, he was ranked twelve in the world, probably wasn’t going to get a call up to fight for the world title. It’s just that the opponent broke his hand in training, and they needed a replacement. So they called my mate, they said, “Do you want to come to Texas and fight this guy?” Short notice, he had five weeks to prepare. And he called me to tell me and I found myself saying, “I’d love to film that.” And he said, “All right, well, get in the gym tomorrow because I gotta get in shape.”

At that point, I didn’t have a camera, I didn’t have anything. I’d literally never filmed anything. So I grabbed my brother’s stills camera, a 5D stills camera and used the video component and then rigged up some sound gear, and then started shooting the next day. I think we filmed for four weeks in Melbourne and then a week in Texas for all the fight stuff, and then I followed him on and off for about a year and a half after that to see what effect the fight had on his personal life. And that just really whet my appetite for it.

You’ve previously worked with Alkinos Tsilimidos. I understand that he’s a lecturer too. Was he somebody you could turn to for guidance or support?

NB: I’ve certainly never studied with Alkinos. I’ve acted in his films, obviously. He’s not a documentary filmmaker. I was more reaching out to documentary filmmakers, particularly with this last one. I’m going to have horses and people and two cameras. How do I do it? Al wasn’t a reference, but certainly some other documentary filmmakers I leaned on pretty heavily. I remember it was the second day of the shoot, and there were the two horses in the film and there was all these other horses and the veterans. I just remember feeling very overwhelmed. “What have I done here?” (laughs) “Where do I tell the camera guys to film?” It felt like I was doing Dances With Wolves or something. In my head where I’d come from, I was like, “Fuck, this is too big.”

But I’ve got a lot of filmmaker friends and the ones I reached out to were really helpful in giving me whatever sort of advice they could. It was funny: [with] Inside Fighter, there was five weeks leading up to this fight, because potentially it could really change this guy’s life, you know? And in my head, I was thinking, “Okay, well, the film’s gonna be he wins or loses, and that’s the movie.” After the fight, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s kind of a depressing ending. All right, I guess that’s what it is.” And then I was talking to another friend of mine, a writer, and he said, “No, now you’ve really got to film. You’ve got to follow this guy, you got to see what effect this event has on him over a longer period.” I had never thought of that. I was so fixated on we’ve got five weeks to get this thing done. And then I thought, “Oh fuck, that’s a good idea.” So I followed Frank, the protagonist of the film, for another 18 months, and that’s what gave the that film its resonance.

Similarly to this film, after I filmed the first five days where the veterans complete this first course, when I realised at the end of it that Scott offers an opportunity for these veterans to continue working with him over years, I thought, “I wonder if any of them will do that.” And if they do that, what change would then take place? Because that could be really significant. I could see that over five days, they’d certainly gone through some really positive experiences and change. But then you can’t help but wonder do they go back to their lives which have a lot of dysfunction and pain and stuff like that? And then do things fall apart again? I certainly had that question.

Staying in touch with them and seeing where they were up to, I realised that the majority of them kept working with Scott for long periods of time and really improved their horsemanship skills. And then I remember Mel [Baker] saying, “I’ve just written a book, and I’m going to do a book launch. And it’s about my journey of working with Scott and the horses.” And I thought that “Fuck, this very, very troubled woman I met on day one of that course, two and a half years later is now publishing a book and doing a book reading at this big room full of people.” It seemed like a massive journey from where I met her to where she was. Each of them were going through these really profound transformations. I thought, “I’ve got to keep filming. This film is not just five days.” Before you know it, it becomes years. (laughs)

It’s kind of mind blowing, you just never imagine that this thing’s going to take that long, that it’s going to take you to these places. I suppose that’s one of the beauties about documentaries, long-form documentary. The real gift of it is that you have no idea where this will go. But it’s also the pain of it too, because you don’t know how long it’s going to take, you don’t know what the ending is. You have to keep having some sort of faith that it will work out.

Were there any films that you watched in preparation to get an idea of what you were going to possibly be dealing with?

NB: No. Both films that I’ve made, I’ve had very little preparation time. The boxing one was like overnight, “I’m doing it”, and then I’m filming the next day. That was zero preparation. I’ve watched a lot of films, I’ve watched a lot of documentaries so you find yourself going back to favourite films in your head and trying to remember scenes or how they shot them or what the feeling of it was.

Before we started The Healing, I didn’t have any time to watch anything. I just remember talking to Matt [Chuang] in the car on the way up and just saying, “Let’s shoot this as cinematically as we can. Let’s really go to town with slow motion and close-ups. We don’t want this to look like a standard talking heads TV doco. Let’s find interesting ways and see what we can do with how close we can get to the horses and what can we achieve?”

Because we’d never shot near thoroughbred racehorses in a round yard. I remember initially we started filming them from outside the round yard. But looking at the footage, it wasn’t visceral enough. We weren’t capturing the feeling of being right up next to it. I remember Matt going, “Well, fuck, I’m getting in there.” And then him jumping in there and being really close and then whizzing around, the horse running around him. The cameramen were really brave actually. Because the horses are quite unpredictable and they’re also very powerful. So if it goes wrong, it can go really badly.

The shot where the cameraman is in the middle and it’s turning super quick is the kind of shot that people look at and go “How exactly did they do that?” It’s as simple as getting in there and doing it, and often people don’t think of that.

NB: Yeah. No, they were great. Honestly, my heart was in my mouth because the cameras are expensive, the lenses are expensive. I remember seeing a documentary years ago where a really troubled horse reared up and bit someone on the face. And it just stuck. I was sure these horses weren’t going to do that, but in the back of my head, I was like, “Fuck, if one of these horses kicks someone or kicks the camera or bites someone hard, we’re going to be all sorts.” And because we had two cameras, I couldn’t always tell what everyone was shooting. Part of it is you get into the edit and you’re going through all the rushes and you get these amazing surprises, because you’re thinking, “I never saw that being shot. Oh, what an amazing sequence or what a great shot.” It was really fascinating discovering after the shoot what some of the cameraman had managed to achieve.

The last question which I like to ask filmmakers is: what does it mean to be an Australian filmmaker to you?

NB: That’s a good question. I love watching Australian films. I think for me there’s an opportunity to share. One of my favourite filmmakers is a guy called Alan Clarke. He was a British filmmaker. I think he made only maybe three feature films, but he made a lot of work for TV, and some very really bold, like really amazing stuff. 80s in in the UK. When you watched his stuff, you really got a sense of what it was like to live in that country at that time. He seemed very tapped into what it was to be British in that period and what was going on in the country. I’ve always really loved filmmakers that could give you a very strong sense of place.

That really interests me about being an Australian filmmaker: reflecting back to Australian audiences this is how I think we’re living. And beyond that, there’s an opportunity to share a very local story with the world. So that you start to see what connects us as human beings, regardless of where we live.

I think The Healing is a good example of a very local story. Scott is almost like an iconic Man From Snowy River type character. There’s something extremely authentic about him and about the work that he’s doing, and about the veterans. It feels to me like a very honest group of people. And I felt like I could give a sense to audiences of a really local story. But what I loved about it was that it had a very universal theme and universal journeys that people were going through, which was healing from trauma. So whether you live in a country that has veterans and it also has horses that are troubled, or you’re someone who’s been through some really hard times yourself and understands what it’s like to try and recover from that.

It’s a long-winded way of saying that I really love focusing on the local part of the story, all the nuances of living in this particular part of the world. But then I’m really interested to find the universal aspects that unites us wherever we live.

I was always fascinated by the filmmakers that I gravitate to seem to be able to really tap into the universal experience, the common humanity, no matter where the film is set. It’s always surprising: you go and see an Iranian film or something, and culturally it can be very, very different. But then you start laughing at some of the similarities between relationships between people and what motivates people. They seem to be often really global universal things.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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