Film Review: Backtrack Boys

Documentary filmmaker Catherine Scott wrote, directed, co-produced and served as cinematographer on this study of Armidale’s Bernie Shakeshaft and his Backtrack program, and while it’s a bit too long and wanders a little, this is nevertheless harshly moving.

At times we also hear Scott’s voice as she questions the Backtrack kids and encourages them to talk about their lives and how they got to this point. And what lives they’ve had.

First up, though, we meet Bernie, a real salt-of-the-earth-type who’d probably cringe at the label. A jackaroo who began the Backtrack program to help young people with troubled backgrounds, Bernie says that he’s tired of attending funerals and visiting kids in prison, and when his eyes fill with tears you know that he isn’t turning it on for Scott’s camera.

We initially see the kids working with a motley pack of lovely canines to be part of Bernie’s renowned dog-jumping team (yes, you read that right), and much is made about the fact that the dogs have often had lives as tough as the Backtrackers. There’s much more than just dog-training going on here though, and Scott specifically focusses on three of the kids over a two-or-so-year period as they get involved and learn to respect themselves and others.

However, it’s not an easy journey, and even 17 year old Zak, ostensibly a Backtrack success story and one of Bernie’s helpers, looks like he might slip into old, destructive habits. There’s also Alex (15), who chose Sindi (17) over his abusive family, but perhaps the child we remember most here is Russell or ‘Rusty’, a 12 year old who looks rather like UK actor Thomas Turgoose (from This Is England) and causes Zak and Bernie an awful lot of worry.

Russell has been in trouble since he was 9, has a very short temper and speaks with almost poetic profanity (his off-the-cuff, foul-mouthed monologues just about give the film an MA Rating on their own). He’s always at risk, and we watch him at the Backtrack school run by Sarah Mills, who plainly states that much of her work involves convincing her damaged students that they’re not stupid.

Losing control of itself after Bernie and the boys attend an official reception and win an award at Government House, this stumbles slightly as it nears its conclusion, and things end uncertainly for Zak and Russell especially, with both facing more struggles, but we hope they’ll be okay now we’ve come to know them so well.

And, after all, anyone loves dogs so much can’t be all bad, right?

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