FILM: Backtrack Boys



The documentary, Backtrack Boys is an ode to the healing powers of the Australian bush, hardworking dogs and the deep commitment of a man who gives a home and a purpose to the troubled youths that Australia doesn’t know what to do with. With its considered exploration of a critical and delicate topic, this feature length documentary  should be on every Australian’s watchlist.

Director, Catherine Scott originally went out to the small town of Armidale in central NSW to film a half hour piece on Bernie Shakeshaft who started the BackTrack youth program centre from his shed. In the space of 10 years, over 1000 kids have gone through BackTrack’s unique and successful program. After experiencing the magic of his work, the half an hour short turned into a feature-length film. 

Scott, armed with a camera and determination spent two years filming the Backtrack Boys ; a group of Australia’s disadvantaged youth undertaking Bernie’s BackTrack program. Under the guidance of the straight-talking Bernie and his ‘wise ones’ (his dogs), they learn not only the ins and outs of training dogs to jump, but also important life lessons along the way. They travel to rural shows across NSW to demonstrate not only their dogs’ record-holding skills but also what happens when troubled kids are given a second chance and a purpose over potential jail time or juvenile detention.

The documentary is captivating from the get go. Scott’s ability to slot right into the group unobtrusively is a rare quality as the kids seem at ease and open up to the camera without hesitation. It is this honesty about their life, their trauma and their deep feelings that makes this documentary a must-see for all Australians. It gives inimitable insight into the disadvantaged and misunderstood youth that are often dismissed or negatively portrayed within the media and Australian society.

There are twists and turns akin to a drama film as the audience follows the stories of Zac, Tyrson and Rusty, who are kids on the brink of jail, drugs and a life of crime. Catherine Scott has chosen her cast well. Zac, brings the wisdom of an elder, a beacon for the group. Tyrson shows that determination and love can replace hard drugs. Lastly the wild Rusty, who brings comedic gold that lightens the heaviness of the topic. As their lives unfold, Bernie’s ability to draw out their innermost thoughts and buried feelings creates a paternal-like fondness for each character. When their stories twist, the audience’s hearts do too, with audible sobbing and cries of outrage. 

Each boy’s story is vastly different, yet the film conveys undeniable similarities with them all: poverty, lack of parental guidance and finding themselves time and time again, hanging with the ‘wrong crowd’.

As the film unfolds, it becomes obvious that Bernie and his dogs are giving these kids unconditional and non-judgmental love; something many of them have never experienced the likes of before. 

There is no doubting Bernie’s good character but the feature lacked in adequately sharing his history and adding that extra layer of depth. The small fragments of his journey are instead, scattered throughout the film without much of a timeline.

The dogs also seem to be pushed to the back once the drama ensues. With such a critical subject and the hugeness of their role, scientific validation of how they helped could have added beneficial insight for an Australian audience.

What Bernie has created for the boys is the ‘right crowd’, which involves more than just the army of volunteers or dogs as the main component. Each individual kid going through the program shares a desire to be better, to do better and to grow. The resulting sense of camaraderie and supportive environment, against the backdrop of the bush and stars, could be the magic formula that needs to be replicated to help troubled kids throughout Australia. 

Scott has created a deeply moving documentary. Her cinematography and eye for detail is sophisticated and each story and scene ties in seamlessly. Her ability to meld into the environment makes her not only a terrific storyteller but gives the space and a platform for others like Bernie, Zac, Tyrson and Rusty to share theirs too. 

PS: Take some water with you to your screening, you will need to stay hydrated because there will be tears. Woof