‘Black Beauty’ Director Ashley Avis Explores Treating Wild Horses


Ashley Avis was looking to put a modern spin on “Black Beauty,” Anna Sewell’s classic novel about a horse’s struggles and hardships. So when it came time to adapt the book for a new generation of moviegoers, Avis chose its equine protagonist to be a wild mustang from Utah’s Onaqui Mountains. The film debuted on Disney+ in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, but the journey didn’t end with the release of “Black Beauty.”

While researching the issues wild horses face for this film, Avis uncovered the controversial way government officials treat the 80,000 feral horses that currently live on 245 million acres of public land. But Avis didn’t stop there. She decided to make a documentary called “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West,” exploring the efforts of the Bureau of Land Management to remove these horses and keep them in captivity to make way for millions of cattle and sheep to graze on the same. ground.

“I grew up with horses and I love horses,” Avis says. “But I had no idea that was happening. And it’s upsetting because if the horse people don’t know what’s going on, what about the general public?”

The office claimed they do this to ensure the horses do not become overcrowded or to prevent them from decimating the habitats of wildlife such as sage grouse. But Avis argues that these justifications are always changing and fallacious.

“They keep coming up with different reasons,” she says. “They need to be put under a microscope for changing their narrative so many times.”

Avis and his team spent four years doing just that, and at one point were able to film one of the government roundups. The footage they shot showed officials using helicopters to circle the horses, an approach the film says terrifies the animals, leading to some breaking their legs and necks. “We tried so hard to capture the devastation we felt watching this,” Avis says.

She thinks part of the problem is a lack of empathy on the part of these officials (she says one bureaucrat claimed that horses “breed, honey. They don’t feel anything”).

‘Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West’ is seeking distribution, but it has already made its way onto the film festival circuit, screening at the Newport Film Festival and Doc LA, where it won the award. for Best Director and Best Cinematography. Avis hopes the film will inspire viewers to get involved by writing to lawmakers and President Joe Biden. And she wants the film to spark wider debate.

“It may start with wild horses, but it’s really about how to protect our greater wild world,” Avis says. “If we can get people to pay attention to horses, maybe that can create a ripple effect in making people understand what is happening on our public lands. We need to find a better balance between the humans living in the world and not just try to dominate it, control it and bend it to us.

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