Award-winning filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s second full-length feature film, The Rider, screened as a part of the TIFF ’Next Wave’ section last week. Zhao tells a fictional tale of horse trainer and rodeo cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) in the Badlands of South Dakota who attempts to redefine his life after a near fatal head injury. Based on a true story, Zhao casts real-life wrangler Brady Jandreau in the role to paint an accurate picture of life in this harsh part of Middle America. The documentary feel to the film brings us deep inside the world where money and education are lacking, yet allows us to briefly walk in another’s shoes to better understand a young man’s life and choices.
Zhao sat down with me in Toronto to discuss her unique artistic and emotional film. Her pride and candid insight shined an even brighter light on this beautifully perceptive story. The Rider brought home the Art Cinema Award at Cannes and was presented with the Werner Herzog Film Award. Herzog introduced Zhao’s film at the Telluride Film Festival saying, “He, as you can imagine, is a huge inspiration for me. He said, ‘The film represents the best of the Heartland.’” Dedicating the film to a now wheelchair bound rodeo cowboy in the film, Lane Scott, she described that not a dry eye in the audience could be found. Zhao continued, “It’s incredible to see how other filmmakers that you admire for so long…have such big hearts and compassion for humanity.”
Zhao seems to be drawn to a variety of film subjects, immersing herself in whatever her environment. She reflected upon how and why she does this. “I was born in Beijing and left when I was 14 for the U.K. and [have] just been drifting quite a lot…Nothing really stuck for me…I’m constantly changing so my filmmaking is an excuse to find my home of the moment to belong.” Living this way, Zhao confided, is both a blessing and a curse. “When I meet kids like [Brady] on the reservation where the community is so tight—this is their family, this is where they belong, they never question where they should go. There is a ‘groundedness’ and security that I never had and probably never will. I’m anxious about that. I have to figure out how to be ok with it.”
Zhao met Brady on the reservation during a previous film project, but finding his story took years. Brady, part Sioux, was born and raised on the reservation and according to Zhao, he calls himself an “Indian cowboy.” She wanted to capture the pride and mentality of this mixed group or “subculture” of kids and said, “It’s always a dark part of American history and yet that’s what’s great about this country…they somehow managed to coexist.” She didn’t have a full story about Brady, though, until his injury. With a metal plate in his head and recovering from a coma, he was advised by doctors to never ride again. However, Brady was back breaking wild horses in six weeks. Zhao questioned him saying, “What are you doing? You’re risking your life!” She continued, “But that is someone who risks his life on a daily basis to keep his identity. So the story presented itself to us.”
It seemed obvious to outsiders that Brady needed to stop riding and breaking horses, but it wasn’t quite this simple. Zhao learned through the making of this film that she can’t judge the decisions of others. Brady’s spiritual connection with horses and nature was captured as they filmed, but one particular scene was pivotal. Filming in the Badlands during “the magic hour” created an emotional transcendence—riding with Brady, truly understanding who he is. Zhao added in a heartfelt tone, “You understand why they might suffer poverty and backwardness…this was the most intense experience of my life. It’s really important to be compassionate and open about what the other person wants. At the end of the day, we are all just human beings. We have very similar hopes and dreams and struggles.”
© Pamela Powell (9/19/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Real-life wrangler Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn
Photo Credits: 1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right