Framing delinquent youth as hopeless cases is a common narrative ploy by a ruthless and shallow media. There’s the assumption that youths are going to gather together in gangs, commit crimes and cause havoc.
Director Catherine Scott has thrown a fresh bucket of water on an old stereotype. Just as she did in her other amazingly insightful documentary Scarlet Road from 2011. This told the story of Rachel Wooten, an Australian sex worker who helps men with disabilities to experience pleasure, desire and physical affection for the first time. It was a story full of hope, heart, inspiration and joy.
Scarlet Road – Trailer
This time around, Scott casts her compassionate and talented eye on another Australian story. The documentary follows Backtrack, a youth program based in Armidale in New South Wales. The program pairs youths who have been in trouble with the law with a four legged friend for a dog-jumping competition called Paws Up. The dogs teach the boys a lot about discipline, team-work, unconditional love.
Trailer- Backtrack Boys
Yet this is a story that doesn’t attempt to tell the stories of young people. It’s instead a platform to enable them to speak about their experiences and to be themselves. The personalities of the kids come through loud and clear, and the viewer finds themselves drawn in and feeling affection for these strong characters. Three boys are featured Zac, Rusty and Tyson and we watch as their various court cases and troubling family situations play out in real time.
The real unsung heroes who remain silent throughout the film are the working dogs that are calming, steading and grounding influences on the boys. We witness this several times throughout the documentary when Backtrack Director and all-round inspiration Bernie Shakeshaft speaks softly and gently to the dogs and to the boys, telling them that sometimes in life, in order to get what you want – you need to be soft and gentle, not aggressive.
The gentle humanness of this documentary and sheer emotionality of it is a real rollercoaster. As this is real life, it’s not all sunshine and roses at the end, but we are left with a real sense of hope about the Backtrack program that this is a far more loving way of helping troubled kids, compared to locking them up. Definitely see this if you have the opportunity, it is wonderful. Up there with one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Bring the tissues.