Bringing the focus back to horses at Equus Film Festival

It wasn’t always about Thoroughbreds. When I was a kid, it was about any kind of horse at all – Clydesdales, Quarter Horses, fat Shetland Ponies, didn’t matter – and when it comes to the root cause of my interest in racing that’s probably still the case. This past weekend I had the opportunity to watch several films at the Equus Film Festival in Harlem. I was in it for the films that tackled racing in one way or another, but I caught several others either in bits and pieces or in full. I learned about the role of the Icelandic horses in that society, a racing circuit, of sorts, in North Philadelphia, traversing Europe en masse on horseback, and more than I wanted to know about splint bone surgery. 

Perhaps the most captivating film for me was Animaglyphes, which traced a mass movement of people, animals, and livestock across three countries and two continents. The concept was to draw on the landscape through the flow of animal herds, riders, and people in the spirit of transhumance, or the practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another. Animaglyphes – a fictional word coined by the filmmakers Manolo and Camille, proprietors of Théâtre du Cenataur to describe the drawings – were meant “for the eyes of birds.” 

The film featured spoken French narrative, with subtitles, but one hardly needed to listen or read as the images alone brought into stark relief the disconnect between agrarian and modern society. The terrain covered by the participants was both urban and rural, and if the point was about changing perspectives, the message was crystal clear as I watched horses and riders disembark from a train at a crowded station in Marseille, France.

While livestock animals are no longer part of the daily existence of urban dwellers, the films at Equus proved that horses still represent a valid muse for people from all walks of life, all around the world. This festival brought those people together, and a Friday evening discussion panel with a handful of film directors and some of their subjects raised the question of whether the creators of some of these films saw themselves first as horse people, or filmmakers. Answers varied, but when the default was filmmaker, there seemed to be an obvious evolution into horse person, or at the very least, equine admirer.

Repeatedly in the various films I saw, the same sentiment was expressed in different ways, and horses were represented as a path to freedom. Herd in Icelandtold of annual movement of horses from the lowlands to the highlands for the summer and back again in the fall. Jóna Guobjörg Guomundsdóttir, daughter of a breeder featured in the film, noted: “Riding a good horse in perfect conditions, you really can’t describe with words the freedom of that moment.” 

In North Philadelphia, Jamil Pratis, the amateur jockey on which Mil’s Life centers, described the effect horses have had on his life. 

“If it weren’t for the stables, I’d probably be locked up or dead somewhere right now. It turned my life around, really. ‘Cause I was a bad boy, and I met the horses it just…it changed everything.”

I was able to see only a small sample of the films offered at the festival, but they served as a pleasant reminder of the genesis of my professional interest. As for what’s kept me in the game, Pratis probably described that best. 

“I love racing horses. This need for speed, it just make you want to go. I love to get tears in my eyes, man, not from crying, from speed.”

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