Directed by Bill Yahraus and produced by Robin Rosenthal, ‘Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart’ follows Las Azaleas as they rigorously train to represent the U.S. at the National Charro Championships in Mexico. Escaramuza, or skirmish, describes both their daredevil horseback ballets, ridden sidesaddle at top speed, and the intensity of their competition season. Neither life-altering challenges at home nor cartel violence across the border can keep Las Azaleas from their goal. In an interview with producer Robin Rosenthal, she describes the journey to the broadcast premiere of ‘Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart’. Be sure to check your local listings to find out when you can watch this extraordinary film on your local PBS stations. Follow Pony Highway Productions on Facebook for more information and news on local events.
How did you come to make ESCARAMUZA?
While making our last documentary, a 3-part series set in the world of Thoroughbred horseracing (On the Muscle), Bill and I saw so many impressive riders of Mexican descent. And because we self-distributed, we noticed there was very little available to an American audience about Mexican and Mexican American equestrian traditions. We came to realize that a centuries-old culture of horsemanship, that had truly helped shape the American West, was now unheralded and unappreciated, even as whole communities here were involved in its preservation.
Researching La Charrería, the romanticized expression of this Mexican-style horsemanship, we fell in love with the women’s side—the Escaramuza. We tend to make immersive, experiential-style documentaries, and to find stories inside self-contained, tradition-driven communities with shared customs and codes of behavior that are somewhat mysterious to the general public. Escaramuza fit the bill. We met Escaramuza Charra Las Azaleas for the first time during one of their grueling “boot camp” practice marathons here in Southern California, with their instructor flown up from Mexico. We saw eight beautiful, fiercely dedicated young women, at the top of their game, riding with everything they had, and knew we’d found our subjects.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge was probably the same one the girls had to contend with. Not to give too much away, but the cartel violence in Mexico messed with all of our plans and we found ourselves needing to shoot for an extra year in order to make the film we set out to make.
Other than that, there were the normal challenges of any multi-year shoot, with plenty of heat and dust thrown into the bargain.
How did you gain the trust of the young women who are the subjects of the film?
The fact that we all spoke “horse” gave us a bond from the start. There were times when I’d have my boom mic in one hand and be holding the reins to somebody’s horse in the other. The girls would tease me and say they were gonna put me in if they were short a girl. I always said I couldn’t attempt sidesaddle riding until the doc was 100 percent “in the can.” It still isn’t, so I still haven’t. But I do think the trust that came from already being so comfortable around the horses gave us a leg up. Additionally, there’s such a family atmosphere surrounding La Charrería, and we participated in (and shot) so many family events and milestones, that we actually became part of the family, and continue to be.
Did anything happen during the filming that was unexpected?
Yes, and those things are in the film. I don’t want to give them away.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the subjects seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We’ve had no real audiences yet, as we’re still putting the finishing touches on the film. Unless we can throw together a premiere between now and October 5th, the VOCES broadcast will be our premiere. But Las Azaleas and some members of their immediate families have seen it, and they’re very pleased. It thrills them to know that their sport and the culture it’s a part of will be recognized outside their own community. They’re already quoting one of their instructor’s lines from the movie, “All of this circus, for four minutes.”
Making independent films can be tough. What keeps you motivated?
Once you fall in love with your subjects, and make a commitment to them, there’s no stopping. They’ve trusted you with their story, they’ve let you into their homes, they’ve given you their time…there’s no going back. So once we reach that point, we must do whatever it takes. Anything else is unthinkable.
What advice would you give young filmmakers just starting out?
You have to really want this life. The hours are long and the pay is short. If you’re not doing it for love, then you shouldn’t do it.
What’s your next project?
That’s like asking someone about to give birth after four years of pregnancy, “When are you having your next child?” Instead of coming at the end of a period of festival and other community screenings, for us the broadcast is coming at the beginning. So there’s still so much to do to give the documentary its legs and to send it properly out into the world after its broadcast debut. We want to see the film shown in schools, at museums, at cultural centers, with Las Azaleas involvement as “culture bearers”…so for now that’s our next project.