London Australian Film Festival: Backtrack Boys Review
BackTrack Youth Works is a charitable organisation in Armidale, New South Wales, founded by CEO Bernie Shakeshaft. It deals with teenagers who are vulnerable, troubled or at risk, and sometimes in jail. It helps them get back on track – hence the name – and has an eighty-seven-percent success rate in educating and training them and finding them employment. Paws Up is one of their programmes, which involves BackTrack’s youngsters in dog training. Others include work on farms. Previously, Shakeshaft had worked as a tracker in the Northern Territory, and since then dogs have been integral to his work at BackTrack. Over a thousand youngsters have been helped by the organisation over the last ten years and the local crime rate has halved in that time.
Backtrack Boys, a documentary by Catherine Scott shot over two years, follows three young men: Zach, Tyson and Russell. The last-named, known as Rusty, is all of 12-years-old when he arrives at BackTrack, in a cowboy hat, smoking and swearing. Tyson’s family background featured drug addiction and alcoholism. Zach, the eldest of the three, came from Alice Springs originally and now acts as a mentor to the younger boys in the programmes. All three of them have been in trouble with the law, and court appearances are dotted through the course of the film. Scott does include interviews to camera, but for much of the film, she – acting as her own cinematographer – shoots fly-on-the-wall style, with no commentary other than occasional captions. So we watch as the three boys arrive, and their defensiveness slowly disappears as they become involved in the training of the dogs for jumping competitions. The work with the dogs is a metaphor for BackTrack’s work with the boys: encouraging them to make the jump, helping them over if they need it.
And we the audience soon empathise with the boys. It’s not hard to miss the point that without BackTrack or something like it these boys, and others, might have ended up in jail, or on the streets possibly involved in crime and drug addiction or maybe dead. Without belabouring the point, Scott suggests that incarceration isn’t the answer for boys like these, and maybe rehabilitation is. Bernie Shakeshaft is the father figure and mentor that they hadn’t had and clearly need.
It’s a moving story, but not an sentimental one, as it’s clear the boys’ futures may still be difficult. But they’re left with hope, and so are we. It’s just a pity that the language - in BBFC terms, often strong and sometimes very strong, 15-territory if it were submitted - will in many countries preclude some youngsters from seeing this film. Backtrack Boys premiered at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival and won the Audience Award.
Backtrack Boysshowed at the London Australian Film Festival. Further UK distribution is to be confirmed.