Bernie Shakeshaft is a jackaroo, and this documentary is essentially about the residential youth programme he runs on the outskirts of Armidale in NSW. Kids (predominantly boys) who are troubled – and in trouble – go there to continue their education, as a last chance before “juvie”. A key part of the process is the way they work and bond with Shakeshaft’s dogs, preparing them for dog-jumping competitions.
So far so straightforward, and indeed after five or ten minutes it seems that the point – admirable though it may be – has been made, and that the feature length of Backtrack Boys is superfluous. Happily, this is not the case at all, though, because the film grows in depth and as we get to know more about some of the boys – and the personalities of them and their wonderfully big-hearted mentor – it becomes very moving and suspenseful. (The dogs themselves are rather engaging too, incidentally.)
The focus is principally on two lads, a 12-year-old called Rusty and a very likeable older (aboriginal) guy called Zach. They’ve both had pretty tumultuous pasts, and they’re both facing the ghastly prospect of imminent incarceration. Shakeshaft calls a spade a spade – at one point he tells someone not to “carry on like a fuckwit” – but can also be almost poetic in the way he describes the crushing emotional effect of the inevitable disappointments. (“There’s only so many times you can suck the soul out of something before it turns pear-shaped”.)
This is very affecting viewing, by turns harrowing and inspiring.