on her new doco, Backtrack Boys
Last week the Prince Harry and Meghan visited a unique community organisation in Armidale, called the Backtrack Boys; helping young boys and girls get back on track, with the aid of some super cute dogs.
Funnily enough, Catherine Scott's new documentary on Bernie and the Backtrack Boys program is hitting screens this weekend! We chatted to her about the process, and which story affected her most.
Jacob: How did you discover the story of the Backtrack Boys?
Catherine: I’m a documentary filmmaker who has been working for over 20 years in the documentary film industry. I have done a lot of films about the criminal justice system, and prisons and so on. I was at a party and I was chatting to somebody, and I was talking about some of the work I have done and also about getting a dog for my diabetic son. This person I was talking to said “Oh my god! You’ve got to meet this guy Bernie - he’s up in Armidale, and he’s doing this incredible work with young people who are falling between the cracks.” He told me about how incarceration rates are going down, and how one of the ways Bernie does this is he has this dog jumping team that travels all around regional and rural Australia. It started as something that was just a way to get the kids out of town and introduced to public speaking. But they ended up becoming national championships.
I just thought; this is the story I’ve got to tell. I just thought this would be perfect for a film; it’s got the landscape, it’s got the drama with the boys and the competition, but it’s also got this beautiful tale of redemption to it. So that’s what drew me to the story.
Jacob: What was the process for you like?
Catherine: I went up there a couple of days after I had the conversation. I chucked the kids and a camera in the back of the car and just went on the road with them for about a week. I met Bernie, and Zac and young Rusty, who is in the film. I was originally going to do it as a short story, but then as I was filming I realised it was much bigger than that. It had all the big issues of the day, that we see in the news; domestic violence, drugs, crime, unemployment and the crises of the regions. It was all playing out in the lives of these young kids. It was a wonderful way to do a character driven story, a coming of age story because they are all at the point in their life where they are becoming young men. And then it was wonderful to work with this extraordinary man, who has decided to work with these kids and not give up on them like everyone else in society seems to have done. He really teaches them how to be men, and live their life in a sort of non-violent and productive way in which they are actually giving back to the community.
It took me about two years to film, and I probably did about 30 trips - driving up there to Armidale from Sydney, which is about a 6 hour drive. We didn’t actually get money until late in the process, in the last six months, so it was all sort of on my dime until we got to that point. So it wasn’t an easy process to make the film, but it has been one of the most fulfilling and inspiring films I have had the opportunity to work on.
Jacob: You get some really interesting access; particularly some of the shots inside the correctional facility. How difficult was it for you to get those approvals and that access?
Catherine: Well, one of the things you do when you are making a film is make these little trailers, and select reels, to show your characters and the story you have. In the old days, you used to be able to just write a proposal and you got money, but nowadays there is so little funding available and it is so intensely competitive that you have to do this. It’s also really, really important just in terms of getting the people in your film to trust you. You go out there and say that you’re doing a documentary, and most people are like “what is that?”
So I did that, and that was really instrumental in getting a lot of the young people to be excited about things, because in the beginning they were like “who is this chick, wandering around with the camera”. It also became very important when I sent those links to the juvenile justice folks. I sent them those and told them that there was one kid, who ended up going back into detention. There is a law that means I couldn’t film him under the age of 18, but he had just turned 18, and so I asked if I could come in and tell his story. What he had done was he took Backtrack Boys back in to the correctional facility with him. He was doing circle work, had started a men’s group, and he was going out from Monday to Friday from 9 to 5, doing volunteer work training at a local cafe - apprenticeship sort of stuff.
I was shocked. First of all, I didn’t even know that juvenile justice centres did that, and secondly I just thought that this kid was so determined to make his time there worthwhile. I just felt that we needed to show that. He went in there and became a bit of a role model for the other boys in the correctional centre.
This wonderful man named Paul, who is the regional director there, just loved the idea, and he was the one who sort of said “Yep, come in”. But we also had the support of the juvenile justice system in NSW, which was really fantastic. They all saw the film, because they had to sign-off to make sure there weren’t any security breaches, and I think that it’s good. It’s great that they have supported the film. We are hoping that they are going to let us show it in the prisons.
A big problem is that kids go into detention, and they often return. And believe me, it breaks the heart of the workers there. When Tyson left, the workers there really felt they had seen the end of him for good, and when he came back in they were like “Oh, no!” So they want these kids to get out and thrive too.
So I think that it was that approach. I went in, noting that I wasn’t doing an expose here; this is about Tyson and Backtrack, and this is just where he happens to be right now, and I just need to show that because it is the reality of how these kids live.
Jacob: You chronicle quite a few interlinking stories; did you have one that affected you most?
Catherine: They all affect me a lot; I am obviously very close to all of them. I think the one that shocked me the most was Zac. Zac was sort of like the poster guy; he had been there for so long and had come so far, and I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but something happens to him in the film and I think we are all in shock. It mortifies the audience. But he bounces back, and right now he is doing really well, working as a teachers aide and doing a lot of stuff in the community with Backtrack.
We tried to make the film like a drama, which wasn’t hard because a lot of things were happening that were so dramatic. There are a lot of funny moments, and a lot of sad moments, but in the end the film is really hopeful. It is possible to turn these kids around. And we need to just do what Bernie does, which is hang in there long enough to help these kids until they are ready to return to the community.
Jacob: What's next on the agenda for you?
Catherine: I am currently working with Mint Productions on an SBS series called Untyped Stories. We are doing one of the shows, about a transgender woman who is a truckie in Wagga Wagga, who is organising their first Mardis Gras. It is meant to be the biggest party Wagga Wagga has ever seen.
Backtrack Boys is playing in cinemas this weekend (27th of October). If your local cinema isn't playing, then get in touch with them and make them! It's a brilliant documentary.