I truly believe that we, as humans, do not deserve every inch of beauty that this world gives to us, because we do not appreciate it for what it is. We want to own it, harness it–we think that just because we see it, we have a right to it. That unconscious ownership is dangerous.
I have only seen a horse in real life a few times, but I remember being awestruck by their size and musculature. Seeing a horse in the wild is a completely different experience, and director Ashley Avis wastes no time in describing their power as we see a heard running collectively together: “I’ll never forget the first time that I saw a wild horse,” Avis says in narration. “It was right at the edge of dawn when the sky was in that special shade between blue and purple. And I thought, in that moment, that they looked like ghosts of the desert.” Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West is gorgeously shot and passionately directed, and Avis provides enough first-hand evidence to infuriate you.
The main question Avis poses at the start of her documentary is a simple one: Why? “Aren’t they living symbols of America?” Avis asks. These are federally supported animals, so shouldn’t the people who care about them have a say in how they are treated. We learn that the main antagonist in all of this is the Bureau of Land Management who is in charge of protecting the animals that live and roam on government land, but what Avis’ film exposes is how the BLM herds them using antiquated and cruel tactics like chasing them with dangerously low helicopters. Foals are separated from mares and families are torn apart. There are numerous round-ups in Wild Beauty that show how horses are cornered into running into tight pens, resulting in injury and, a lot of times, euthanization.
One of the strongest elements to Avis’ film is how she and her team embrace the role of investigative journalists–it isn’t a choice for them. We have seen other films where a director becomes a subject in their own film, but Avis never loses sight of her mission. It’s daring and inspiring to see what she does in order to capture the footage she needs. In one chilling, heartbreaking sequence, they enter the slaughterhouse pipeline, and there is palpable tension. Using secretive methods like button cameras, we see how young horses are trotted around for auction. A zebra is even among the animals up for bid. Avis also employs the expertise of Oglala Lakota Scientist Doctor Yvette Running Horse Collin, PhD, wild horse photographer Kimerlee Curyl, and Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project.
Avis and her team (which includes her husband, Ed, and her brother, Richard) encounter numerous roadblocks just in terms of witnessing the round-ups. She stands up tp BLM officials who won’t let them shoot the collection point. The BLM will sometimes just change their story to justify their actions whether it be drought or protection of starvation, but you can see something tragic on these horses’ faces. The way the wind blows their manes into their eyes; the way their heads slightly hang day after day of round ups. These animals do not know why humans do the things they do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel sadness, pain, or loss.
While there is a lot of sorrow and tempered rage throughout Wild Beauty, there is a call to action. A good documentary doesn’t just present the facts but it lights something within you, and Avis’ film will be responsible for burning passion when it comes to protecting animals. Wild Beauty is full of staggering beauty, but, most importantly, it ignites the torch for those to speak for those who cannot speak. We do not deserve the majesty that these horses bring, but that doesn’t mean we should give up fighting for them.
Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West is available to rent now.