Film Festival

SBIFF Movie Spotlight: Roaming Wild

An invisible battle over wild horses in public lands

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Ever since this country's inception, the horse has been the symbol of American freedom and independence. But as Sylvia Johnson shows in her latest documentary, Roaming Wild, wild horses find themselves at the center of an age-defying controversy where the demands of modern development are colliding with the needs of the wild.

The film shines light into what is often referred to as the invisible battle waged across the American West. These wild horses are constantly competing over land resources with humans set on expanding their borders. Johnson humanizes the growing controversy over wild horse management on public lands.

Roaming Wild invests in three characters whose stories weave together to portray a bigger picture and distinct facet of the conflict these horses are challenged with. They are diverse, quirky, independent and passionate about their way of life. Audiences will love the unlikely hero that emerges.

Johnson graciously took NewsChannel 3 in a journey behind the making of this exceptional documentary, and what makes it so different then other films of the same nature.

What motivated you to make this film?

Several years ago I was invited to go see a wild horse round up with a friend and was totally blown away by what I saw. I couldn't believe that this was happening and I had no idea about it. The more I learned the more I felt like it was a story that really needed to be told.

I realized that what is going on with the horses is really just the tip of the iceberg for what is going on with our Western public lands. This controversy has everything to do with the demand for water and natural resources and increasing pressures for development on our wild lands. There are a lot of films that have been made about the wild horses, but none that focus on trying to find a sustainable solution and that's where I feel the conversation needs to go.

What was the most difficult thing about making Roaming Wild?

This film is a labor of love. I like to say its a labor of love made by a skeleton crew on a shoestring budget. One of the most difficult things was trying to balance raising the money to make it with working other jobs to pay our own bills and trying to be out in the field shooting it as the story was happening.

The film was largely funded through a couple of crowd-funding campaigns and a small crew of talented people willing to contribute a lot of their time. It was definitely an exercise in determination for a couple of young women filmmakers!

Care to share a story or two about challenges you faced in making this film?

One of the challenges early on in the making of the film was gaining access. This issue is fraught with emotion and controversy, and people were very wary of cameras and how their story would be portrayed. It took a real investment of time to build the trust that made the telling of this story possible.

Another challenge was filming wild horses… they are wild after all! They live in a huge expanse of open land and can be difficult to find out in the wild and most of them high tail it away from humans when they see you coming.

We got lucky that a public affairs officer for the BLM introduced us to the Onaqui herd in Utah that for whatever reason are more camera friendly. I was able to get much closer to them and film some powerful footage of them in the wild. Those were some of the best days of shooting I've ever had, they were often long and physically challenging, but it was an incredible experience to be among the herd!

Why do you think we hear so very little about this battle going on whereas wild horses are removed from their habitat?

Its interesting, this issue has been covered quite a bit recently in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other news outlets - its a hot topic, but interestingly most people still have no idea that it is going on. A lot of Americans don't even know that wild horses exist - I didn't know there were wild horses in this country until I started working on this project. I think there's a big disconnect between the rural Western US and our modern urbanized society. For many people these horses and these landscapes exist only in their imagination.

Dan Elkins is quite the gadget man with technological solutions. Where did you find him? And is he the only person currently practicing this method of catching wild horses?

Dan is one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. I found him through a contact at the Humane Society of the United States. She and Dan had collaborated on the implementation of birth control for the horses, and she knew I was working on this project and looking for interesting characters. She said, "You've got to meet Dan" and boy was she right about that!

There are a few other people who practice bait-trapping or no-chase gather of wild horses, but Dan is the only one I know of who uses this particular method and combines the use of technology and a deep understanding of animal behavior. He is a tinkerer, always innovating and trying to figure out the best possible way to catch the horses with the least amount of stress to the animals.

How effective did you find Dan's techniques to be?

I find Dan's techniques to be very effective. The horses are not traumatized when he catches them. In fact, I've seen horses come back to his pens of their own accord numerous times after he has caught them. And by treating the horses with fertility control he is helping to reduce the need to catch the horses.

The challenge with Dan's method is scaling it up to meet the need across 10 Western states. His method is slower and involves a lot of patience and a real understanding of the animal behavior and the environment that they live in. I think that with a real investment in training people to do what Dan does and a willingness to have a long term vision and approach to managing wild horses, it could make Dan's methods a more sustainable solution on a broad scale.

In your opinion, is there one solution you found to be better than others after making this film?

This issue is so layered, and they are in so deep in the problem, that I don't think there is any one silver bullet. Its going to take a combination of different solutions including: the implementation of fertility control on a wider scale, an investment in adoption training programs, private Eco-sanctuaries, and more humane gathering methods. Ultimately, I think a real solution will only be found through a willingness to innovate and to find a common ground among the multiple stakeholders that prioritizes long term sustainability for people, animals, and landscape.

What message would you like audiences to leave with after watching your film?

There are two things that I hope people take away from the film. The first is a sense of hope that more sustainable alternatives really are possible. The second is an understanding of the complexity of different view points on this issue- that are each valid in their own right- and the idea that solutions can be found by bringing people together on common ground. Ultimately it is more about much more than horses, each one of the people in this film is fighting for a Western way of life that is quickly disappearing in our modern world.

How do you feel having your film be accepted into the distinguished Santa Barbara International Film Festival?

I am incredibly excited and honored! I can't think of a better place for the film to premiere than at Santa Barbara. It was very important to me that the film premiere in the West where the issue takes place, and what a great festival to do it at.

This area is prime horse country and close enough that several of the people featured in the film are going to be able to come to the screening. We're really looking forward to sharing the film with audiences and having this be the launching pad for the film to have a real impact in helping to find more sustainable solutions for wild horses.

Roaming Wild will premiere at the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Friday, January 31 at 7 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and on Saturday, February 1 at 2 p.m. at the Metro 4 Theater.

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