Horsin’ Around: The CCA Gets Mustang Fever May 31 and June 1

Casey St. Charnez - May 30, 2014

Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts has a real good way to have a fine equine time this weekend.

Sylvia Johnson’s humane and enlightening documentary Roaming Wild will gallop all over the wall of the CCA’s big (127-seat) theater, on Saturday May 31st and Sunday June 1st at noon, with its director in attendance at both shows.

There will be other guests, too, including Santa Fe’s Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary director Karen Herman, one of the many dedicated Southwestern professionals profiled in Sylvia’s film.

The 66-minute film, which has been touring the country’s film festivals—coast-to-coast, from Santa Barbara to Washington D.C.—is an overview of the continuing plight of the wild mustang.

These noble descendants of the horses of the Conquistadors currently number in the many tens of thousands—no one really knows anywhere near how many--and their care and conversation is in the calloused hands of the Bureau of Land Management… whose management is anything but.

However, rather than serving as an indictment of obvious animal mistreatment, the compassionate and audience-friendly Roaming Wild takes a very personal approach in its scope, while still maintaining its focus on the need for reform. Folks in Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico tell their stories and share their horses, in this thoroughly professional, and deeply involving work, the best of its kind since Wild Horse, Wild Ride (2011).

A good deal of the film—which I’ve seen in advance, and very much enjoyed--is devoted to the pioneering mission of Sky Mountain, which in partnership with the patient efforts of the wise, gentle, but rugged horseman Dan Elkins, has developed a relationship with the mustangs of Mt. Taylor in NorNewMex. The Sky Mountain mission is to approach herd control with immunocontraception instead of the BLM’s cruel, shocking, often fatal helicopter roundups. Theirs is a visionary effort.

Sylvia describes her film as “a modern day Western about the controversy over America’s wild horses and hope for a sustainable future.” Yet her film is no polemic, steering blessedly clear of shock tactics, like slaughterhouse footage. There is none of that. Just human stories that include horses, and vice versa.

In an e-mail, Sylvia told me she spent her teenage years riding on a Colorado ranch. She said that a few years later, “A friend and fellow photojournalist took me to one of these wild horse gathers in Wyoming…I was blown away by what I saw. It was both spectacular and heartbreaking, and the more I talked to people the more I realized that the story is shades of grey, and not the black and white conflict so often portrayed in the media. It's a story that stuck with me and, I felt, it needed to be told.”

What with earning a Master’s in filmmaking from American University, and spending time as a self-described “backpack journalist” filming on a Fulbright in Brazil, plus shooting films for the National Park Service, Sylvia, then teaching at the Corcoran College of Art & Design felt it was time to address herself to her own nonfiction feature.

The wild horse in today’s American West was her chosen subject.

She says her production “was made by a skeleton crew on a shoestring budget,” and that it was “financed primarily through crowd-funding and private donations.”

Her distribution model is utterly 21st century: “We have partnered with Gathr Films [see www.gathr.us] to release the film via their theatrical On-Demand model beginning in June. Using this model, people can request a screening of the film in theaters anywhere in the country. We have screenings coming up in Austin, the Bay Area, and Salt Lake City and hope that there will be more all across the country.

“We also hope to get the film into nationwide distribution via PBS or another TV network as well through VOD,” she continues. “The goal is to have as many people see the film as possible, spark a national dialogue about more sustainable solutions for the wild horse issue, and hopefully help to drive a change in policy towards more sustainable solutions.”

Clearly, this is a no-nonsense film artist who is more interested in the message than the massage.

Her next film, she mentioned, will be “about a young woman in Kosovo who lived through the war and now works as a staffer in a human rights law office. She never got to have a prom as a teenager due to the war, but this summer, she and her friends - now all in their 30's - are throwing the prom they never had.”   

See what I mean about Sylvia Johnson?

For more on the movie: go to www.roamingwildfilm.com, or see Facebook or Twitter (@RoamingWild).

For more on the CCA Cinematheque: www.ccasantafe.org, or call (505) 982-1338.

For more on Sky Mountain: www.skymountainwild.org.

Or you could just go see the movie.