26 Oct 2018 | BY Sarah Thomas - @SarahTtheWriter
Twelve-year-old Rusty, from Condobolin in central west NSW, looks much younger than his years, with his cherubic cheeks, blue eyes and lick of blond hair that falls into his face.
The angelic little boy instantly disappears, however, as soon as he opens his mouth. His language would make a sailor blush, and he talks like a seasoned veteran of the criminal justice system. He’s been in trouble with the police since he was nine. He’s been homeless and slept under bridges and in burnt-out cars. He’s also unrelentingly charismatic and cocky. “I’m just too good-looking for jail,” he says, even though the prospect for him is a very real one.
But he turns a corner – and his story and those of the other boys featured in Catherine Scott’s affecting and often heartbreaking documentary Backtrack Boys are a remarkable testament to the ability to reset the path of marginalised kids.
The boys learn that they’re not predestined to head to down the path of the poverty-prison cycle, that they can be in charge of their own destinies. That growing up in underprivileged, fractured, traumatic environments, particularly in rural communities, doesn’t condemn them to a life in the criminal justice system or in the throes of addiction. They are shown a new beginning.
This is down to the incredible work of Bernie Shakeshaft, a former tracker who has been running BackTrack in Armidale for 12 years. He and his team have worked with more than 1000 kids, despite a lack of government funding, in a number of ways including through education and teaching trade skills, as well as a small residential program. It has halved the local crime rate and its evident success has got the entire community on board in supporting a better path for these vulnerable young people.
One way it teaches the boys self-respect, discipline and a sense of purpose is through its travelling dog-jumping team, PawsUp, where the boys get to bond, train and perform with the dogs. “Dogs don’t judge,” says Shakeshaft in the film.
The doco scored a big win in publicity recently ahead of its release, with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex seeing firsthand the skill of the team when they stopped off in Dubbo. Scott says for the boys that meeting the royals would have been a great experience, but much more important is the bigger picture.
“The real life-changing stuff is the day-to-day stuff that Bernie does with them,” she says. “Really, it’s not so much the big, monumental things, it’s all the everyday small things where he fills the holes and the gaps that the system and society has completely let them down on.”
Shakeshaft says the purpose of BackTrack is to keep the kids alive, out of jail and let them chase their hopes and dreams. The guiding principle, which gives it it’s name, is to go out in front and draw the kids in, rather than chase them.
‘Let’s look for the gold in these kids’
Scott, a documentary filmmaker and producer of 25 years with credits including Dateline, Scarlet Road and the award-winning Business Behind Bars, caught wind of BackTrack a few years back. The idea of mixing dogs and the criminal justice system, both subjects she has a passion for, was irresistible and she headed to Armidale with the idea of doing a short film about their work with dogs.
“When I got up there and I met all the young people, I just thought, ‘Oh my god, this is actually a much bigger story.’ I thought it would actually work much better as being a coming-of-age story, to follow them over a longer period of time so you really clock that change.”
Over two years, Scott visited the BackTrack group 30 times. She gained such support from the boys that when they saw how much she was struggling to fund the documentary, they had a collection for her (she didn’t accept, but was incredibly moved by the gesture). Backtrack Boys was eventually funded by Documentary Australia Foundation, Screen Australia and Create NSW for an overall budget of $500,000, which she says is low for a feature documentary, but was manageable because she wore all the hats of producer, director and cinematographer.
Scott’s key strength as an observational documentary filmmaker is the trust she established with Shakeshaft and the boys, which is clear from their stark openness. “You have to listen,” she says. “It is the most important thing. When you’re really listening, you get beyond yourself and you just get totally into them and being there for them so they can tell their story.”
Some of the most powerful scenes are between Shakeshaft and his charges, and his gentle nurturing and nudging of them in the right direction. There’s also his firm, plain-speaking approach, too – one of his guidelines for when the kids deliberately break or damage things is “you f–k it, you fix it”.
“I just think that he’s a leader,” says Scott of Shakeshaft’s skill. “We’re living in a world right now where there’s either really bad leaders or no leaders, and there’s very poor leadership in Australia right now, and he’s stepping up.
“And he’s leading an entire community to support these young people. This is a very conservative community. They voted for Barnaby Joyce. They are a farming rural community and normally these folks would be lapping up the whole law and order stuff, and they’re not.
“They’re getting behind Bernie and they’re giving these kids a second chance. The nannas are going in and helping cook and the farmers are training them up on how to fence and people are giving them jobs and there’s work crews going out. And it’s because Bernie led them down that way. He said, ‘Come on, let’s look for the gold in these kids and let’s see if we can turn this around.’“
Another striking aspect is the support the boys give each other, both in general and in opening up and talking to each about their feelings or past, and making their stories heard.
“We just have to listen to these young people a little bit more, but we also have to create spaces where they can support each other,” she says. “It’s just this wonderful thing, and you see it time and time again in different circumstances, where peer-to-peer education or mentoring systems work a treat. They work in a way that other things don’t work. I just can’t figure out why people aren’t doing it more.”
She says she hopes the film starts a discussion on a national level about finding other ways to deal with young people who are falling between the cracks. Interestingly, Backtrack Boys has been made by a team of almost exclusively women, with Scott joined by editor Andrea Lang, consultant producer Madeleine Hetherton and executive producer Mitzi Goldman.
Scott says it’s a time to be looking at toxic masculinity from a women’s perspective. “I didn’t go out and go, let’s have an all-women team to make a story about men. But it’s just how it organically happened but then you go, well, it kind of makes sense.”
She says we need to look at the ways boys are growing up. “For me, as a woman, I’m like let’s go back a few steps and figure out how can we address some of these issues in another way or earlier so we don’t end up here again and again, generation after generation, where women are getting beaten and killed and women are up against it in the workplace.”
Shakeshaft’s tirelessness in instilling good, better values in these young men, some of whom have grown up surrounded by violence, is astounding.
“He’s modelling another way,” says Scott. “Bernie is a tremendous model for men and for boys and just humanity generally.
“The underlying thing is that people are getting these kids and working with them and not just punishing them. They are trying to engage them with the world around them, with nature, with themselves – and that is the key.”
Backtrack Boys is out now. For cinemas, see backtrackboys.com.