Filmmaker Ashley Avis’s newest film, documentary Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West, takes viewers on a journey into the world of wild horses in the Western United States highlighting both their beauty and desperate plight they currently face. The documentary debuted at last year’s Breckenridge Film Festival, followed by a premiere at Boston Film Festival, and won Best Documentary in Boston and at the St. Louis Film Festival. Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West opened in select theaters on May 12 and is now available on VOD.
This is not the first time Ashley creates a film centered on horses. She wrote and directed the screenplay for the 2020 reimagined Disney film Black Beauty starring Kate Winslet and Mackenzie Foy.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ashley about the documentary including the important messages it conveys. Check out our conversation below.
When did the idea for this documentary initially start to emerge?
Ashley Avis (AA): As a longtime equestrian and lover of horses, in 2017 I was fortunate to be brought on to write and direct a reimagining of Black Beauty, based on the timeless classic by Anna Sewell. That experience that would eventually lead to creating Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West. Black Beauty originally inspired my love of horses as a child, so it was extremely important to me to honor Anna’s themes for writing the novel. So when I came to understand that she created the story as an animal welfare plea, I began researching issues horses were facing in our world today. That is when I came across the plight of wild horses, and I was shocked that as an equestrian, I didn’t know what was going on.
In 2019 we began filming wild horses independently across the Western United States. We began to realize that they were being rounded up in mass numbers, eradicated from their habitat, torn away from their families, and placed in government holding facilities; some never to gallop again. Others were being “adopted” and then illegally flipped into the slaughter pipeline in Canada and Mexico, which is unimaginably horrific.
That loss of freedom and family was devastating to witness, and the corruption we began to realize was linked to the eradication of wild horses was shocking. It was a fight over land and special interests; with a massive deference given to livestock ranchers who get to graze their cattle and sheep cheaply on our public lands, at taxpayers expense. And so began the journey into creating this feature length documentary over five years, to hopefully raise awareness for wild horses before they are lost to history, along with casting a spotlight on the major ecological ripples stemming from their plight.
What were some of your main goals when first putting together the concept for Wild Beauty?
AA: The film began with a goal to raise awareness for wild horses, much like Blackfish or The Cove did for their respective species. Wild Beauty became more journalistic as we went along, and came to progressively understand the nuances and corruption behind the issue. We wanted to help expose the misinformation campaign by The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) against wild horses, and the well publicized lie the BLM has put out as a blanket statement to the media that wild horses are starving and overpopulated, and must be rounded up for their own good. This is false. This is ultimately to distract the public’s attention from the overgrazing by commercial livestock, and blaming the wild horse as a smokescreen.
Our goal now that the film is available to the public is to help push forth legislative change. The first step in my opinion is that we must put a halt to using cruel, antiquated methods such as helicopters to round up wild horses, and there is an important bill being reintroduced by Congresswoman Dina Titus this year to do exactly that. The next step would be revoking or buying out the grazing permits of livestock ranchers, restoring wild horse habitat that has been zeroed out by the BLM, and restructuring (and investigating) The Bureau of Land Management for their gross mismanagement of wild horses and their attempt to drive them to extinction level.
The greater vision is to eventually rewild the ~60,000 horses currently incarcerated in government holding facilities, and restore natural predators, so that we finally have a true natural ecological balance on our public lands.
You not only wrote and directed the documentary, but you also narrated, edited AND produced it. How did you manage to balance all of these roles?
AA: I appreciate you asking that question. It was an enormous task, and I was very fortunate to work alongside my husband and producing partner Edward Winters, who has been such a support system for me; and my brother Richard Avis. Our cinematographer Kai Krause is also an incredible friend and partner.
I would say that in addition to directing the film, and having to emotionally experience the atrocities committed against these horses, the brutality, the injuries; editing was the hardest part of the entire process. Particularly given I was in a dark room by myself for months, reliving the roundups over, and over, and over. I’m hesitant to even say how hard that was, given my experience means nothing compared to what the horses had to go through. But there were many moments during this process I was sure my heart would break.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers, specifically those interested in making documentaries?
AA: I feel we can all use our passion and creativity to help change our own corners of the world – so find your corner, and fight for it. Fight for it fearlessly. Identify what drives you, what causes you to be sleepless with the want to pursue it, that particular story that makes you breathless.
And once you embark on your documentary, or your narrative film, hold onto it. Stand by it and fight for it no matter what comes. Go in knowing that at times it may seem as if you will fail, or financing won’t come through, or something will break; but trust that your gut if it rings true you’re probably on the right path.
The process of Wild Beauty felt at times like we were trying to wrap our arms around, and hold onto, a tornado. But in the moments when things would go right, when we found the horses in the mountains, when the sky lit up with respelenet light, when we knew we were starting to make a difference: that is when every hardship was worth it. So I would say in summation, find your calling, and hold on for the ride.
What are some key messages you hope audiences absorb after watching Wild Beauty?
AA: I sincerely hope that audiences will come away from Wild Beauty feeling impassioned, angry, hopeful, and driven to help make change for wild horses, and our greater wild world. I hope they are swept up in the astounding beauty we have right here on our public lands, and they stand up to help protect it. Not just for us, but for generations to come.
Thank you for standing with wild horses.
Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West is available on VOD