Reviews

Ultimate Bull Riding

Michael Buening

The disc opens with a montage titled 'Hitting the Dirt.' It could also be called 'Hitting the Horns,' 'Hitting the Rodeo Clown,' and 'Getting the Head Stuck Between the Starting Chute Bars While the Hand Stays Attached to a Crazed Animal.'


Ultimate Bull Riding

Distributor: Time Life
Cast: Tuff Hedeman, Terry Don West, Ty Muffay, Donnie Gay, Jim Shoulders
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Network: ProRodeo Films
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-01-24
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What is it about the bull that inspires men to violent sport? In ancient Crete, they devised bull-vaulting, Brits had bull-baiting (which helped give us pit bulls and bulldogs), the Mediterranean region still celebrates bullfighting and the running of the bulls, and the American rodeo features bull riding. Each of these games harks back to some primitive instinct that I don't quite recognize in myself, to a time when bulls and men ran naked and free and sometimes produced half-bull/half-man offspring who lived in mazes.

Of all these sports, none is as queer as bull riding. It originated with the first American rodeo in the mid 1800s. Whereas other rodeo competitions correspond to a useful skill in the ranching industry, like steer roping, bull riding comes from the Pecos Bill School of Cowboying. There is no rational reason to ride a bull (it bucks to remind you that you shouldn't), but its outsized ludicrousness is part of the point, like taming a tornado.

Though I admire something in this cockeyed aspect of it, I was reminded while watching Time-Life's Ultimate Bull Riding, of my first response: "Good god, what are you thinking?" The disc is basically separated into two sections, bitchin' rides and gnarly falls. Everybody falls. It's just a question of how bad.

According to Dr. Tandy Freeman, Director of Medical Services for Professional Bull Riders' HealthSouth Sportsmedicine Team, "All these guys ride with a certain amount of pain." The most frequent injury is a concussion. Basically, the only protective gear they wear is a Kevlar vest and a glove to grip the rope. The most gruesome falls usually occur when the rider falls off the bull with his hand caught under the rope, so the bull spins and tramples the helplessly dangling rider. (The most common surgical procedures undergone by bull riders are for shoulder injuries.) Then there's the way a two-ton animal bucking underneath your crotch tends to tear at your groin and internal organs. Of the 56 professional bull riders currently in competition for the fledgling 2006 season, 20 are listed as injured on the Professional Bull Riders website.

Like NASCAR racing and gladiator games, death is the primary allure for spectators. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, superstar Chris Shivers opined, "Ninety percent of the people want to see blood and guts. I bet you go to those folks' houses, you'll find tapes spilling out of their cabinets of people getting stomped on and rolled on and busted up." The makers of Ultimate Bull Riding apparently agree. The disc opens with a montage titled "Hitting the Dirt." It could also be called "Hitting the Horns," "Hitting the Hooves," "Hitting the Rodeo Clown," and "Getting the Head Stuck Between the Starting Chute Bars While the Hand Stays Attached to a Crazed Animal." The chapter title, "Just Chute Me," may work better straight than as a pun.

The rest of the disc is essentially an extended clip reel. An interesting effect of watching eight seconds loops of riding ad nauseam is that it eventually lulls you into a meditative state, free from thoughts of bodily damage. This lets you consider the sport from abstract angles, where bull and rider fuse into a timeless reverie of mutual antagonism.

Still, this doesn't teach you anything concrete about the sport. The following sections, "90 Point Club" and "Classic Action," give you names of famous riders and tantalizing retro footage of '70s rodeos. But you're still left wondering, who are these guys? I would have imagined they're young and possessed of tremendous courage that borders on insanity and/or rank foolishness, and that the average career lasts about eight seconds. But the bios of stars like Shivers show them to be clean-cut family men who have been pros for years. A few interviews would have made easy and useful bonus material.

Ultimate Bull Riding's closest kin may be the skateboarding video, which also revels in endless clips of bone-shattering tumbles. But skating videos also strive to capture the culture from whence the participants come. Here we don't see anything about the role of the bulls, who are also scored, develop their own fan bases, and are sometimes treated as well as the riders on the road. There's also a dearth of footage featuring supporting characters like the clowns and barrel men, typically only glimpsed running like mad at the edge of the frame. Bull riding has been increasing in popularity; it's primetime entertainment on the Outdoor Life Network. If the Pro Rodeo organization that put these clips together wants to attract more fans, more detailed information can only help.

The disc wraps up with "Last Waltz," a comic set piece using classical music as a counterpoint to the action. It's like ending Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks performing a little soft-shoe. At a certain point, dizziness from watching heaps of carnage turns to queasiness and exasperation. Shouldn't we have outgrown our bizarre chest-puffing attachment to bulls by now? As far as I can figure, this sport is about confronting mortality with deliberate self-mutilation, achieving romance through bodily harm. For the life of me, I just don't get it. As Tennyson once put it, "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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