‘Unbranded’ Film Festival Review
Unbranded was covered as part of our Tallgrass Film Festival 13 (2015) coverage. For more on our Tallgrass Coverage, check out our ProNerd Tour Page.
Let’s clear this up right out the gate. I truly didn’t believe I was the demographic for Unbranded, a documentary about mustangs. But after finishing the film, I realized a few things.
Unbranded is a documentary about four friends (Ben Masters, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer, and Jonny Fitzsimons), who decide to ride from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada on recently adopted mustangs – while also doubling as an educational piece on the concerns and issues with the wild horse population in the western United States. As complex as it sounds, simply put, Unbranded is inspirational, educational, entertaining, funny, and a fun documentary all while taking on a political topic and remaining mostly unbiased.
After previously riding mustangs through public terrain, Ben Masters decides to try it again. He leads his friends into adopting ten mustangs then handing them over to professional trainers for a month right before taking on training the horses themselves for three months. From there, a nearly half year’s journey awaits them as they ride the mustangs through Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana; much like it would have been done generations ago.
With a documentary like Unbranded, you get things a scripted film can’t offer. The wonderful thing about this story is the chemistry and comradery shown amongst the four men. It simply can’t be replicated by acting. The conflicts and joys they share are genuine and it shines right onto the screen with Ben Thamer delivering comedic one-liners in scenes throughout. The men show a genuine love for these horses, with moments breaking their hearts and others inspiring them. Those genuine emotions come over so well that it spills into the audience watching the film. This is definitely a nice treat in comparison to many other documentaries these days which suffer extensively from forcing that emotion where Unbranded lets it play out naturally.
Intertwined in this journey are some educational aspects of the wild mustang population. It is very clear that Unbranded has a motive to educate its audience as opposed to just entertaining them with this cross country ride. The material, for the most part, is presented in a very unbiased way. Sharing facts about the more than 50,000 wild horses in the United States and what it takes for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to maintain them and keep activists happy.
Although the documentary is very in favor of the facts and side the BLM shares, it offers an objective voice for the activists who oppose the government organization and the regulation. This is a nice treat, as political documentaries have become very one sided over the past few decades, with their mission so important the truth even gets stretched. Thankfully, again, Unbranded fights the status quo and does things its own way.
But outside of the documentary piece, Unbranded is an absolutely beautiful piece of filmmaking. The cinematography is out of this world, some of the best I’ve seen this weekend. Shots are slowed down, angles are unique, and the team behind the camera (sometimes the four friends themselves) does whatever it takes to get the shot and capture the beauty this country and the journey has to offer. It’s matched by the soundtrack and the decisions of editing, as all of those elements come together to turn this documentary into a cohesive piece, even when bouncing in and out of the journey to discuss the issue at hand.
Unbranded shocked me. By the end of the ride, my emotions and thoughts were invested not just in the journey these four young men took but the concerns around the thousands of mustangs in the United States. I truly found a great film in a place I did not expect, and learned some amazing things while also leaving the theater feeling inspired.