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6 Sundance-Supported, Heart-Rockin’ Rides Through the World of Rodeo

A white horse keeps the rope taut to a calf, as a cowboy in a light-colored hat, secures him

Kendrick Dominique competes in a calf-roping rodeo event, in the short film The Roper.

By Vanessa Zimmer

Unlike advanced algebra, according to our sources, rodeo skills come in handy on the ranch. Sometimes, you need to rope a stray steer or get a surly bronc acquainted with a saddle. Some folks call that cowboying.

Summer is the prime time for showcasing those skills, with rodeos popping up across the American West, and East, North, and South. The work of tending and herding cattle from horseback expanded from the vaqueros of Spain and Mexico, with roots dating back to the 16th century, to the United States and Canada. By the late 1800s, it had morphed into what is now the competitive equestrian sport known as rodeo, matching the skills and speed of cowboys and cowgirls against one another.

The joy and the art — and, yes, the pain and agony — of rodeo have been tackled in independent film, as evidenced in this handful of offerings that have played the Sundance Film Festival or otherwise been supported by the Sundance Institute. So, saddle up and head out to inspect this herd — er, batch of cinema.

Man in light cowboy hat with feature, a striped western shirt, jeans, and boots stands in the dirt and dry grass, with a medium-sized dark dog at his side.
Bruce Ford was a legendary professional rodeo athlete, winning five world titles in bronc riding.

 

Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story (1994 Sundance Film Festival) — Arthur Elgort, one of the leading fashion photographers of the time, directed a documentary profiling real-life rodeo legend Bruce Ford, a bronc rider who won five world titles. Elgort’s style caught the visual artistry, the play of light and shadow, and the pageantry of the sport. “Colorado Cowboy reaffirms values that are part of our past, yet still relevant to our present, both in terms of character and fleshing out icons,” Geoffrey Gilmore wrote in the Festival Film Guide.  “… It is an intimate, clear-cut vision as natural and honest as its subject, a must for anyone interested in the way we view heroes today.” Winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award in the documentary category at the Festival. There may be VHS copies of this film still floating around.

The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo (2000 Sundance Film Festival) — This short documentary (31 minutes), directed by Simeon Soffer, covers the wild and wooly world of prison rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. According to the Festival Film Guide: “Prison rodeo is just a springboard for inspiring testimonials and penetrating social observations in this amazing documentary.” The short film was nominated for an Oscar in Best Documentary, Short Subjects, and won the top award for shorts at the International Documentary Association. Available on Kanopy. 

Dark-skinned man sitting on the end of a bed, in ball cap, red T-shirt and jeans, hands folded, with a cross, a God Bless Cowboys sign, mirror, trophies, dresser, fan and other items in the background
In the Deep South, Kendrick Dominique dreams of competing in calf-roping in the professional rodeo finals, in The Roper.

The Roper (2013 Sundance Film Festival) — This six-minute short documentary is about Kendrick Dominique, a young, Black calf-roper in the American deep South who dreams of making it to the national rodeo finals in Las Vegas. Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands directed. Available on Vimeo and documentary.net.

Young native girl stands in a prairie, with a young man and woman embracing in the near background, and mother people in westernwear and a church in the background
Songs My Brothers Taught Me was Chloé Zhao's debut feature film. It played the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015 Sundance Film Festival) — Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) made her feature-film debut with this story of a young man torn between leaving his life on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota and staying behind with his younger sister, with whom he has a close bond. Matters are complicated by the death of his uninvolved rodeo-cowboy father. “Zhao sensitively infiltrates isolated Indian Country to offer a rare, modern gaze keenly felt through the eyes of her magnetic nonprofessional lead actors,” according to the Festival Film Guide. Available on AMC+, Showtime, and Sundance Now.

Young bearded man in light cowboy hat looks down pensively, the eye and head of a horse to the rightt
Nonprofessional actor Brady Jandreau plays a young rodeo athlete much like himself, who suffers a traumatic brain injury that forces him to reconsider his mission in life, in The Rider.

The Rider (2018 Sundance Film Festival) — Chloé Zhao met Brady Jandreau while shooting her first film on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Jandreau, a rising rodeo star who suffered a traumatic head injury in the arena, wound up playing someone much like himself in Zhao’s second film, The Rider. Zhao was inspired by the accident to write this story of a bronc rider struggling to find a new identity after his career is cut short. Jandreau’s father and sister played roles in the film. Available on Starz.

Bull (2016 Directors, Screenwriters, and Producing Labs) — This film follows the unlikely relationship between neighbors in a sparsely inhabited Houston-area subdivision — a troubled, wayward teen and an aging ex-bullfighter, now a rodeo clown who distracts the bulls and protects the riders. These two willful souls will change each other’s life. Available on Hulu.

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From the Archives: Sundance Founder Robert Redford on Why He’s Always Believed in the Power of Documentary Filmmaking

The Sundance Film Festival’s longstanding commitment to documentary has been driven by the personal connection founder and president Robert Redford feels for the form. Leading up to the premiere of Chicago 10, the second doc to ever open the Festival, we talked to Redford about the past, present, and possible future of documentaries.You made an early commitment to documentary.

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