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Australia 2018
Directed by
Catherine Scott
100 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Backtrack Boys

Synopsis: A documentary about Bernie Shakeshaft and his BackTrack Program which he runs on his property near Armidale in northern New South Wales.

Bernie Shakeshaft founded the BackTrack Program in 2006 through self-generated funding and private donations in order to offer a real option for troubled kids from broken homes who otherwise would be looking at incarceration and long-term institutionalization.  

A former jackeroo, Shakeshaft bases his work on wisdom learned from indigenous elders to which the program’s name “back track” alludes.  As I understand it the meaning of “back tracking” in this context refers to looking at your past to see what your future holds.  When that past involves drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, criminal convictions and jail time, as Bernie drums home to his charges, some 75% of which, unsurprisingly are indigenous, re-directing your life is really the only choice. The BackTrack Program provides those kids with the support and guidance they need for as long as it takes to be effective, with a remarkable 87% success rate, where success is defined as being in either full time education and training or full time employment.

Writer/director/producer Catherine Scott doesn’t concern herself with pedagogic theory and statistics however but rather shows us the program in action, selecting three of the boys for special attention, their stories giving the film narrative shape as Tyson gets ready to leave juvenile detention and return to the program’s farm while Zac and Russell both get themselves in trouble and face dates in court.  In between we see the kids experiencing in various guises the nurturing which the program provides, in many cases through the contributions of volunteers, with the in loco parentis Shakeshaft steadfastedly weathering the ups and downs of a role to which he is evidently passionately committed.

Backtrack Boys is eye-opening in content, moving without being sentimental in affect and, despite its no-frills aesthetic ,impressively well-made with the cinematography, also by Ms. Scott, editing by Andrea Lang and score by Jonathan Zwartz and Kristin Rule all contributing handsomely to a documentary which received a standing ovation and won the Audience Award when it premiered to a full house at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year.

Go see it, chances are you'll feel the same.




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