By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, ON, CAN)
Evokes Nostalgia for the Wild West, Male Rites of Passage, and Advances Ecological Sustainability
At the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Vimeo On Demand Audience Award was determined to be Unbranded (D: Phillip Baribeau, USA; 105 min.), the story of four wholesome American young men—Ben Masters, Ben Thamer, Jonny Fitzsimons, and Tom Glover, who undertake the adventure of a lifetime. Recent university graduates, with a lifetime of experience in hunting, fishing, horse riding, and ranching, they share a love of the outdoors, deciding to take Mustangs, i.e., wild horses, on a journey from the New Mexico border to Canada, a distance of about 3000 miles, or 4828 km.
Interestingly, the distance in kilometers was never referenced in the film, although metric is a more standard and international system of measurement. Likewise, the journey is chronicled as taking place from New Mexico—a state, to Canada—a country, with no reference of the Canadian province in question. New Mexico, Arizona, Ohio, Wyoming, and Montana are all spoken of. One surmises that the final steps take place somewhere on the British Columbia or Alberta border with Montana. This lack of precision and inclusion brings to mind the infamous 2007 Miss South Carolina fiasco, when blubbering to answer, “Recent polls have shown that a fifth of US Americans can’t locate the US on a map. Why do you think this is so?”
Hints of American “cultural imperialism” (Flaherty & Manning, 1993) extend well beyond such negligible details. Unbranded flaunts an unbridled nostalgia for the Wild West, and traditional American qualities of manhood—stoicism, risk-taking, and the pursuit of glory (albeit, humbly, and partly for ecological sustainability in this film). We encourage males to protect women, children, and country, to tackle their vulnerabilities and master their emotions, to perhaps become an alpha dog, the epitome of manhood (Gosse, 2012). However, being master of oneself, let alone others, is incredibly draining, especially in these hard economic times.
Many boys and men are flailing, as gender norms and expectations transition, whether in Canada, the USA, or beyond. Traditionally, men were taught to only express love to one another in the presence of war, or warlike metaphors, such as sports. This is damaging to both men and women, for males are still punished when expressing their love outside of a heteronormative male-female coupling; they lack the emotional support systems of many women. Conversely, this may spurn some boys and men to seek love, attention, and recognition in risky ways, to themselves and those who come to depend on them.
The reductionist portrayals of the young men presented in Unbranded are akin to these stereotypes: they say little, plod onwards, and only vocalize love for an elderly cowboy who gives them advice throughout their journey—a man who weepingly confides that he lost his own five-year-old son forty years ago, when the boy was kicked by a horse. The John Wayne caricature of manhood, as seen in Unbranded, is commonplace, and has cultural roots. To this day, on the drizzly East Coast of Newfoundland, my father adores Louis L’Amour novels. As a boy, I was enthralled with the Lone Ranger and the Little House on the Prairie, and analogous stories my father told me of his own father—a WWI veteran, trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Newfoundland railway worker, who harvested the local forest for timber and game in his free time.
Today, newer Western television series remain popular, including Longmire and Hell on Wheels,. But what modern man can attempt such “manly” stoicism, heroic deeds, and mastery of self, in an era fraught with technological advances, precarious employment, an insistence on stellar interpersonal and professional skills, and an unsure future? At the start of Unbranded, the young men relate their post-university motivations for taking time off and embarking on this mission—amongst these, they are not yet ready to “settle down”.
We Canadians, especially those of us with ancestors in the hunting, agricultural, and forestry fields, are inclined towards romanticism, adventure, and tales of country and pioneer life. We relate to the concept of conquering nature’s perils. We are part of nature, down to our Canadian goose feather parkas and seal skin winter boots, to our zeal in maintaining conservation land. This is the main attraction of Unbranded. The primarily middle-aged or above audience, appeared absorbed in the film. Audience members, primarily women by the sound, alternated between ohhs and ahhhs at the cast’s boyish antics—riding backwards on a horse, reading novels while trotting on horseback, and jokes about smelly feet and lack of hygiene. One young woman clasped her head in trepidation during dangerous scenes, and she was not alone. These were real emotions the audience felt, and connecting to audience members emotionally, and cognitively, is no mean feat. Unbranded deserves praise for this cinematic accomplishment.
Indeed, it is the composite of these very qualities in Unbranded—the omnipresence of the “man code”, and the ingrained concept and idolization of the solitary man/men on a mission, which likely contributed to Unbranded lassoing the Vimeo On Demand Audience Award. Unbranded reflects familiar, even intimate territory, tapping into our collective sub-conscious, weaned on yarns of tow-headed princes, knights, upstarts, and brooding villains in fairy and folk tales, replicated in just about every Western, action flick, or thriller in Hollywood.
Still, Unbranded should not be brushed aside as just another Western or “rites of passage” film—that would be disingenuous. The cinematography of Unbranded is stunning. From herds of mustangs galloping on the range, and sweeping aerial shots (innovatively accomplished via mini-helicopter drones, including over the Grand Canyon), to visuals of the young men and their mustangs journeying through treacherous terrain, e.g. deserts, narrow mountain trails, slippery slopes—the cinematography is indisputably one of the focal points of this film.
Furthermore, Unbranded explores contemporary themes of ecological sustainability. Mustangs are reproducing at alarming rates, depleting grazing lands for farmers’ livestock. We heard piteous tales of starving mustangs eating dried brush, which settles like a crow’s nest in their bellies, leading to death, or eating each other’s tail and mane. Clips throughout the documentary provide expert commentaries on this phenomenon, including historical background, an initiative to adopt mustangs, and a national wild horse and burro program.
As the mastermind of Unbranded, Ben Masters showed incredible talent and ingenuity, getting friends onboard, working with director Phillip Baribeau, and forming partnerships with producers, such as Cindy Meehl, who gave a Q&A session after the screening. During the journey, Ben Masters also bore primary responsibility for the complex logistics of man and beast, and mapping. Masters is also main author of the book, Unbranded: Four Men and Sixteen Mustangs, Three Thousand Miles across the American West. Congratulations.
Overall rating (3.75/5): The problems of multimedia endorsing the “man code” are ubiquitous but as Virginia Larson (2011) says, “Boys fizz with energy. Sometimes it’s dangerous, but often it’s delightful, expressing itself in good-natured larrikin humour that persists well into mid-life given the right conditions – the presence of a bat and ball, for instance (and preferably a female audience to impress).” In some respects, Unbranded puts traditional masculinities on a pedestal and sets standards that few young men could achieve, or aspire to. Audience members may vicariously (and safely) experience an adventure that few of us could physically carry out, and we get to relive some of the nostalgia ingrained in North American (and much European) history and lore.
However, these young men embark on an almost impossible journey of approximately 4828 km, riding mustangs they only recently began training—the risks and dangers are real. There are several injuries (and it could have been worse), and one horse inexplicably dies en route. From the hundreds of hours of documentation from the ride, it could have been possible to get to know the young men’s personal lives a little more, their fears and insecurities, rather than such a stoic depiction. This may have been a conscious decision, to showcase the realities of the mustangs, and to connect audiences to the longstanding John Wayne trope, I do not know. Nevertheless, Unbranded also highlights the gifts of friendship, loyalty, leadership, teamwork, zest for life, perseverance, respect for nature, and a call for ecological sustainability. This documentary is worth seeing.
Viewed Sunday, May 3, 2015 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Director: Phillip Baribeau
Producer(s): Ben Masters, Dennis Aig, Philip Baribeau
Editor(s): Scott Chestnut
Executive Producer(s): Cindy Meehl, John & Cami Goff, Jerry & Margaret Hodge, Doug & Anne Marie Bratton
Cinematographer(s): Philip Baribeau, Korey Kaczmarek
Composer: Noah Sorota
Sound: Luke the Mustang
Flaherty, D. H., & Manning, F. E. (1993). The Beaver bites back? : American popular culture in Canada. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Gosse, D. (2012). Men, masculinities, and sexualities in education and society: A Call for Evolution. Education Canada, 52(1), 16-19.
Larson, V. (2011, May). In Praise of MEN – Forgotten male virtues: A woman’s view. North & South, 38-41.