Backtrack Boys

BACKTRACK BOYS. Starring: Bernie Shakeshaft, and cast. Directed by Catherine Scott. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong coarse language).100 min.

This Australian, factual documentary tells the story behind the “Backtrack Program”, which is an intervention program that tries to address the negative behaviour of delinquent youths, by aiming to channel their behaviour in positive ways.

The film was directed, produced, and photographed by Catherine Scott. It won the award for Best Documentary at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, and took out the main Audience Award at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival. The identity given to those in the cast respects their privacy. The focus is on rural youth, and the main emphasis is on three troubled boys, Alfie, Rusty and Zach, over a period of a little more than two years in regional NSW.

Bernie Shakeshaft, a jackaroo, founded the Backtrack Program specifically to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and he runs it from from an old shed, just out of Armidale, NSW. He travels to rural towns such as Wellington, Gunnedah, Condobolin and Grafton with his team of dogs and boys to participate in country shows before appreciative audiences.

His boys are all in trouble with the Law through delinquent acting-out, drug addiction, or robbery and assault. They are active participants in the Program and they respond impressively to the challenges created for them. The film tells us that the Program teaches the boys “you don’t have to do it violently”.

The “Backtrack Boys” team up with dogs, each one forming a special relationship with a particular dog. With the help of animals and the boys themselves, Bernie fosters emotional control, and feelings of togetherness and self-discipline that help the boys deal with their anxieties. The boys are urged to push themselves and to bounce back positively if the challenges of life prove too much for them. All experience the positive benefits of the support that they receive, and they grow in self-esteem, the boys coming to realise that they are there “to help each other”. Three main goals characterise the Backtrack Program: to reestablish positive relationships; to deal with psychological and physical trauma; and to help prepare for future life. All three main goals are achieved under the Program, some more so than others for particular boys.

The film shows dramatically how much the Program instills a degree of positive camaraderie among the youths who bond together under Bernie’s caring scrutiny. They regain trust in a world they assumed had forgotten about them, and they form relationships they didn’t think possible. The effects of the program are dramatic, though the outcomes are sometimes sad. Youths, for instance, become valued members of Bernie’s community with his help, support and advice, but some of them are transferred to prison when the court meets to consider their case and pass final (legal) judgement on them. In this respect, the film poses a powerful challenge to the benefits assumed to characterise incarceration. It argues compellingly that there can be much more humane ways of changing anti-social, youth behaviour than imprisonment, or internment.

The documentary is technically impressive. Director, Producer and Cinematographer, Catherine Scott, is a person of many talents. She directs the movie to show intimately the spontaneous interactions of the members of the cast, and she powerfully captures their ups and down, and the risks the boys take to face life emotionally. Scott frequently uses aerial drone shots to demonstrate the beauty of rural landscapes in NSW, and camera-closeups depict the youths’ and carers’ emotions realistically and naturally.

This is an inspirational movie that provides a very positive look at the issues that surround juvenile, delinquent behaviour, and it challenges the viewer with what the Backtrack Program has achieved. This is a movie that has been made to actively shape opinion change, and it will change attitudes that unthinkingly endorse the irreversibility of teenage, delinquent behaviour.

Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Umbrella Entertainment

October 25th., 2018