The Equus Film Festival started in the fall of 2014, hosted at an elegant venue in Harlem in New York City, and concluded with awards named the “Winnies.” My friend and business partner, Jessica Fobert, and I were thrilled our television pilot Free Rein won for Best Equestrian Series. When we received invitations to act as jurors at the 2015 edition, we jumped at the chance.
In its second year, the festival received nearly double the number of submissions, and, as a juror, I was able to screen every minute of every one. They ranged from educational workshops, to art films, documentaries, dramas, commercials and music videos.
Documentaries were the real stars of the festival in 2015, and one of our very own came home as a winner for Best International Full Documentary. Canadian Stefan Morel, and his film Blind Spot: Moments Unseen, was one of the festival favourites. Blind Spot features three visually impaired adventurers who journey by horseback into the heart of the Andes Mountains. With sweeping landscapes and a powerful cinematic style, it is a film to be seen and heard. The sound of the mountains, the light changes and the story of these brave souls, some with riding experience and some without any at all, is an impactful and powerful film. Blind Spot aired on CBC Documentary channel and was nominated for four Canadian Screen Awards. The DVD should be released soon and the powerful trailer can be found on the completely interactive and accessible website, blindspotfilm.com.
Unbranded, winner for Best Documentary, has had an exciting reception at many film festivals around the world. It won the Audience Choice award at Canada’s Hot Docs Film Festival and also won the Audience Award at the Telluride MountainFilm USA Premier. The film follows four young men as they rescue 16 wild mustangs from the BLM holding pens and, in mere months, train and ride these brave and powerful horses across 3,000 wild miles of the American West. The cinematography is exquisite, but it is the real life adventure that drives this film. The characters of the men and the horses themselves make for unique and dramatic relationships as we follow them through injuries, uncertainty and humour. By the time the quest is complete, the audience feels as if we have been on the ride, right there in the saddle with them. It is an incredible movie worth seeing on Netflix, here in Canada, or on DVD/Blu-ray, which can be ordered from their website, watch.unbrandedthefilm.com.
An early documentary favourite was True Appaloosa. It was based on the fascinating story of an American woman and long-time breeder of purebred Appaloosas who has always believed the breed came from Asia, and not from Europe as the history books reflect. While watching a docu-series on her television, featuring a tour of Kyrgyzstan, she noticed a spotted horse in the background of an interview. An Appaloosa? In Eastern Europe? Could this be the proof of the breed’s origins that she had always hoped for? Her journey across the mountains to find the wild and “true” Appaloosas is an exciting and touching adventure. The blood test results at the end of the film will surprise you. It is a well-made movie and beautifully shot, on a fascinating topic for all horse breed enthusiasts. More information can be found on the film’s website, trueappaloosamovie.com.
Another excellent documentary featuring a specific breed was The Man From Coxs River, winner of Best International Film. No punches are pulled as the true story of a fiercely independent horseman and local Parks Rangers fight to save a herd of brumbies (wild horses) is documented from beginning to unexpected end. It is available on DVD and on iTunes on their website, themanfromcoxsriver.com.
Two new horse trainers, whom I am sure we will be hearing much more from, were introduced to the North American audience at the festival. Jessica and I found a firm favourite with a little movie called Taming Wild, by Elsa Sinclair. It features the simple, yet timeless, concept that if you took a completely untouched wild horse and gave them the choice, would they “allow” you to ride them? Would they enjoy it? In this simple and charming documentary, we follow Elsa as she asks the question to a young mare named Myrnah. Their eyes connect at the holding pens as they begin the long and committed journey of developing a relationship free of all tack and force. A conversation begins and continues as the friendship grows. The movie answers many questions for those who love liberty work and the end is a surprise for all. You can purchase a DVD and learn more about Elsa’s work on the website, tamingwild.com.
Emma Massingale is already a superstar in her homeland of England and word of her stardom and her gift with horses is spreading faster than a Thoroughbred can run. Her film No Reins, No Rules, No Limits is a thorough exploration of her life story and her deep connection to horses and all animals and was winner for Best Director Short. She lives with and trains all of her horses at liberty, and the ‘language’ she has developed over her lifetime has helped her connect with challenging horses, stallions, in particular. She produced another film and experiment that you can find on her website where she takes her trained and well-loved Connemara ponies to their native island and sets them free in an exploration of working with them in the wild titled The Island Project. I know we will hear more from Emma here in Canada soon. Learn more at emmamassingale.com.
The festival ended with an elegant and exciting presentation of the “Winnie Awards” where fellow filmmakers cheered and supported each other as the award statues, bottles of champagne and ribbons were distributed to the winners.
Lisa Diersen, founder and director of The Equus Film Festival, revealed some exciting news. “We are also planning to have the Equus Film Festival content available on an online international equestrian platform, with the films available on a pay-per-view format, as well as joining with an Indie Film Festival platform introducing the work of the dedicated Equus Film Festival filmmakers to the rest of the film fest loving public. Discussions are underway with horse lovers in the UAE and China to bring the Equus Film Festival to others around the world.”
The Equus Film Festival is accepting submissions for the 2016 event running November 17-20. Tickets are on sale and can be found on their website, equusfilmfestival.net.
Films to look for this year are Born To Die, the heartbreaking documentary about the truth of the nurse mare foal industry. The trailer can be found on their website, borntodie.org. Also watch for The Black Turf Project: African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing. More info is on their Facebook page.
Equus Film Festival “Winnie” Winners 2015
Festival Director’s Choice: Talking to the Air: Horses of the Forbidden Kingdom
Best of Festival: The Caravan
People’s Choice Full Length: Harry and Snowman
People’s Choice Short: Land of Thoroughbreds
People’s Choice Mini: Reflections
Eq International Documentary: Horse of Kings
Eq International Film: The Man From Coxs River
Eq Fun Film: Dream Upon a Horse
Eq Student Film Adult: Knacker
Eq Student Film Youth: Through My Eyes: The Big Lick
Eq Director Full Length: One Day
Eq Director Short: Emma Massingale: No Reins No Rules No Limits
Eq Film Full International: The Legend of Longwood
Eq Film Full: A Sunday Horse
Eq Film Short: Back Up The Mountain
Eq Film Mini: Stealing Beauty
Eq Art Film Full Length: Saga
Eq Art Film Short: Equus Caballus
Eq Documentary Full International: Blind Spot: Moments Unseen
Eq Art Film Mini: Live Before You Die
Eq Documentary Short: Cowgirls
Eq Documentary Mini: Get Your Heart Jumping
Eq Native American Full: American Outrage
Eq Training & Education: Advance Equine Studies – the Respiratory System
Eq Series: Wild About Barns
Eq Broadcast News: Marshall Country’s Biggest Case of Animal Neglect
Eq Non-Broadcast: Horseware Ireland’s 30 Year Anniversary
Eq Commercial: Shannon Ford Fine Arts
Eq Music Video Full: Davide Penitente
Eq Music Video Short: PONY
Eq Music Video Mini: All About That Bert