A two-and-a-half-year labor of love, Return of the Horse gets its first screening May 17 at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, ahead of an upcoming schedule of screenings at film festivals and museums. The painstakingly researched documentary chronicles the history of America’s wild horses, North America’s native horse, interrelated with the “lifes and times” of the people - heroes, villains and victims - whose lives shaped their destiny.
“Painstakingly” is an unusually apt description in this case. Co-filmmaker Leo Hubbard notes that there is a lot of pain in the history of the American peoples’ relationship with the horse. The mustangs, prized for their endurance (and preferred by cattlemen for those long cattle drives popularized by Western, until the proliferation of railroad spurs shortened the drives to where the European horses could be utilized), were also cruelly treated pawns in the United States’ attempts to subdue the Native Americans.
The movie, aimed for an adult audience – with the ability to be presented to advanced high school students – was a challenge to husband-wife filmmakers Hubbard and Sharon Eliashar, both of whom produced, wrote, directed, filmed, edited and animated the film. Says Eliashar, “The challenge was to take complex scientific things and make it easy to explain them – to take historical concepts and show how connected they are to our relationship with the horse.” And also, she adds, to not make the movie a marathon eight-hour piece – an especially difficult task given the number of “Aha” moments they experienced during their research.
In addition to their background as educators, Eliashar and Hubbard bring a unique combination of artistic talents to the project. While they stress that Return of the Horse is not an entertainment film but is as accurate an account as science and history will allow from our 21st-century vantage point – the script was verified by leading historians at such respected institutions as The Smithsonian – its artistic elements are undeniable.
Eliashar, a musician as well as photographer (she was the film’s cinematographer), focused on creating an experience of authentic music throughout the film. Explains Hubbard, “When trying to get the flavor of the relationship, [she asked], ‘What were the sounds they were listening to? What music was Thomas Jefferson playing?’” She worked with the Library of Congress, for instance, to learn the first cowboy songs, and traced family records to track down living relatives in order to get the rights to include the music in the film – with more “Aha” moments along the way, for instance finding out that Jess Morris got the lyrics to “Goodbye Old Paint” from one of the era’s tremendous population of black cattle drivers.
Hubbard, an architect, artist and printmaker, put his talents into the graphics. Including maps, which are necessary to explaining history but commonly look like power point presentations. Not so in Return of the Horse. The goal, he explains, was to create powerful and beautiful images. “Every graphic should look like art you’d put on your wall,” he says.
While creating a film for “people who really want to learn,” as Hubbard expresses it, he and Eliashar have also crafted a sensory experience.
Photo: film still from Return of the Horse