Doco of the month: Backtrack Boys
10 October 2019 at 8:46 am
What impact can one man and his dog jumping team have on the lives of young people doing it tough in the bush? A profound one, Catherine Scott tells Wendy Williams, as part of a series profiling powerful documentaries in partnership with Documentary Australia Foundation.
When director Catherine Scott first began filming Backtrack Boys she made a sort of pact with Bernie Shakeshaft: Kids first. Film second.
The result is an inspiring coming-of-age story that places a group of troubled boys, who are on a course for jail, centre stage, and shines a light on the youth doing it tough in rural Australia.
At the heart of the film is Shakeshaft, a former jackeroo and dingo trapper who has spent the past 25 years working and living out his passion, “catching wild dogs and wild kids”.
He is the founder and CEO of BackTrack Youth Works, a program, run out of a shed on the outskirts of Armidale, New South Wales, which enables young people who have lost their way to reconnect with education and training and get them “back on track”.
As he sees it, he has three jobs: To keep the kid alive. To keep them out of jail. To chase their hopes and dreams.
Over two years Scott followed a group of these boys as they strived to turn their lives around.
Along the way she developed a deep degree of trust with them that allows for an intimate portrait of their struggles. Scott still talks to them today.
“They’re not just subjects in a documentary. They’re people who are in my life now,” she says.
Her hope is that the film will foster a greater understanding of the issues these kids face and inspire communities to develop real alternatives that will help keep them out of jail.
But Scott, who is also the producer and cinematographer of the observational documentary, says the film came about after chatting with somebody at a party.
At the time, Scott was training a diabetic alert dog for her seven-year old son and she was fascinated by the relationship between dogs and humans.
She had also done a lot of work around the criminal justice system.
“The person seemed to put these two things together and was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to meet this guy Bernie Shakeshaft. He’s doing this amazing work’,” Scott recalls.
Two weeks later, she was in Armidale.
While her original plan was to do a profile of Shakeshaft, when she met the kids her plan changed.
“When Rusty rocked up, I just thought, wow,” she says.
Rusty, “a wise-cracking, rebellious yet vulnerable” 12-year-old became front and centre of the documentary. Scott was there the day he came through the doors of BackTrack, visiting with a group of kids from Condobolin.
“I saw him responding really quickly… And I thought, if I was to follow these young people over a couple of years, we’d really see a lot of transformation,” she says.
While the BackTrack program offers an alternative to locking kids up, it is not all straight sailing.
The boys at the heart of the documentary are up against huge issues, dealing with personal trauma and struggling to navigate life.
Scott remembers when one of the boys at the centre of the film, Zac, got into trouble and had to go to court.
“We were all devastated,” she says.
“I remember walking around town with my video camera aimlessly, just crying, thinking ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this kid could potentially go to prison’.”
She says – speaking as a mother whose son was expelled this year because he has ADHD and the school was not set up for it – one of the reasons she chose to do the story was because she was distraught about how the education system wasn’t “really up to the job”.
“We’re sending lots of people to jail unnecessarily, at very young ages. And once you send a person into the juvenile justice system, it’s very likely they’re going to go back there,” she says.
It is something Shakeshaft is all too familiar with.
He has been to too many funerals for kids and visited too many of them in jail, he tells Scott in the documentary.
But his caring, unconventional style is seeing success where others have failed.
In the last 12 years over 1,000 kids have walked through the BackTrack doors. In the same timeframe, juvenile crime rate in the area has more than halved.
The program has won over the entire town and has the backing of the council, local businesses, police, magistrates, schools and farmers, becoming a model that other communities are keen to adopt.
Scott believes the biggest reason behind the program’s success is that “you can’t get kicked out of Backtrack”.
“People can choose not to be there, but [Shakeshaft] won’t give up,” she says.
“I think the thing that struck everyone through these stories is that these kids are just trying so hard. And they’ve been let down so much by our society and our culture and here’s somebody stepping in in a very quiet kind of matter-of-fact way and he’s turning lives around.”
Scott says Shakeshaft is a great male role model, teaching the boys to be nonviolent, compassionate, generous young men.
“And they’re going into the community and they’re passing it on, they’re mentoring each other and mentoring other people in the community. And it’s just like a ripple effect,” she says.
The other big centerpiece to Shakeshaft’s approach is teaching the kids to work with dogs.
Once known as one of the best white trackers in the Northern Territory, Shakeshaft uses the same principles he was taught by Aboriginal bushmen to track dingoes with the kids.
“You can’t chase ’em, you go out in front and calmly draw them in,” he says.
“This is a game of inches.”
Scott says Shakeshaft is now in a position where he knows what works.
But while it may cost less to send a young person to BackTrack than to incarcerate them in juvenile detention, the program does not receive any government funding, relying instead on philanthropy and individual donors.
Raising the profile of the program, and ensuing it’s continued support, is a key aim for the documentary.
It has already prompted an outpouring of support. In one case a donor pledged $300,000 over three years after seeing the film.
As part of the impact campaign, they have also teamed up with Amnesty International and their Raise the Age campaign.
Scott hopes the documentary can create a national discussion around creating community-led alternatives to juvenile incarceration, as well as provide young people with a positive narrative of themselves.
“I hope this film will give greater insight into youth doing it tough in rural Australia and foster a more in-depth understanding of the issues so desperately needed to develop successful, long-lasting social reforms,” she says.
She describes the documentary, which was released a year ago and was the winner of the audience award for Best Documentary at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, as an “evergreen film” – one that will endure for a long time due to the universal themes it explores.
From domestic violence to poverty, drug addiction, prison and unemployment in country towns all of these issues are bubbling away in the lives of these kids, who Scott says have “fallen between the cracks of the education system”.
“So it’s sort of a small town yarn, but it speaks to the biggest issues of our time,” Scotts says.
“I think that’s the power of this particular story.”
Each month Pro Bono Australia and Documentary Australia Foundation present a Doco of the Month, profiling powerful documentaries with social impact at their heart.
Documentary Australia Foundation is Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation that fosters social change through documentary storytelling.
You may also like: Stories that work – a festival of storytelling for social change, taking place 16 October at The Arts Centre, Melbourne. This Documentary Australia Foundation event will bring together filmmakers, the not-for-profit sector and philanthropists to share high-profile impact documentaries, exciting new projects and examine the anatomy of successful campaigns. Stories that Work will include presentations from 2040, The Staging Post and the Alliance for Gambling Reform – as well as some of our emerging social impact filmmakers.