Producers: Edward Winters, Ashley Avis and Richard Avis Director: Ashley Avis Screenplay: Ashley Avis Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Ashley Avis was an equestrian as a girl, and her love of horses was clear in her 2020 version of Anna Sewell’s classic 1877 novel “Black Beauty,” which, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, never made it to theatres, winding up on Disney+ instead. So it’s not surprising that she’s devoted years to making “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West,” which she also narrates.
But the title may be a trifle deceptive. Yes, there are numerous shots of the majestic steeds running free on the western plains. (The cinematography is by Kai Krause, and the score by Guillaume Roussel.) But this is a documentary about how their numbers are threatened by what Avis alleges is a conspiracy between the government, ranchers who want the right to graze their cattle and sheep on public lands where the horses run, and companies that make millions conducting round-ups of the mustangs, an exposé of corruption that perverts the very law designed to protect the animals from harm.
The legislation is the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRHBA), an act proposed to Congress by President Nixon and signed by him in December of that year. (This may be one of the few films you’ll find that portrays Nixon in heroic terms.) The act protected animals roaming freely on federal land and made it a crime to harass or kill them.
But the law, Avis contends, had a fatal flaw: it placed implementation in the Bureau of Land Management, which was given wide latitude to determine how the equine population should be controlled in relation to other concerns—the needs of ranchers, environmental deterioration, and the desires of hunters. The discretion afforded the BLM, the film argues, has led to decisions to reduce the number of horses made on the basis of factors that have little to do with the original intent of the legislation, and to cruelty in rounding up, corralling and disposing of horses that is systematically withheld from public scrutiny.
Much of the documentary is devoted to disclosing these unsavory practices through the techniques of investigative journalism—using hidden cameras and microphones to reveal auctions and sales that are clear violations of statute, accessing records of profits made by firms licensed by the BLM to conduct the round-ups the agency sanctions and the miniscule fines levied against the owners who violate the law, and confronting BLM officials who restrict access to sites from which the director and her crew can observe and film round-ups, though they nevertheless manage to shoot footage of horses being chased by low-flying helicopters. (The filmmakers are told that they’re being kept from certain vantage points for reasons of safety, but Avis observes that a young girl has been allowed aboard one of the helicopters.) In nod to balance, there are excerpts of interviews with ranchers who offer their own views on the optimum number of horses to be kept on public land, but these are few; the aim of the presentation is not a false sense of balance balance, but indignation.
All of this is prologue to the purpose of the film—not just increasing awareness of the situation but encouraging support for public activism to change it for the better. Footage of rallies calling for greater protection for the horses is accompanied by a push to enlist supporters, especially children, to lend their voices to the effort. “Wild Beauty” thus serves not just as an instructional effort, but a recruitment tool for the Wild Beauty Foundation, an organization devoted to protecting the mustangs of the Southwest. It should prove effective in both respects.
“Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” may be clumsily titled, but it’s a passionate exploration of the plight of the magnificent horses still running free in the American Southwest and critique of the government’s failure to enforce its own mandate to protect them from harm.