SDFF Interviews Workhorse Director Cliff Caines

SDFF co-Director and Lead Programmer Jean McGlothlin (JM) interviewed Director Cliff Caines (CC) about his film Workhorse, which will be streaming on  DA Films America from March 1-21 as SDFF’s pick for the platform’s “Recommended By… Festivals” program.
JM: What brought you to the subject?
CC: I had just finished my first documentary A Rock And A Hard Place in late 2014 when I happened upon my first ever horse pull at the Kinmount Fair, one of the many annual Fall Fairs held locally in the rural farming area of Haliburton County in Southern Ontario, Canada.

My chance encounter with the heavy horse pull left an indelible impression. It was the main event on closing night of the Kinmount Fair, attracting hundreds of spectators who surrounded the track. Emerging from darkness, approaching a sled weighing over 10,000 lbs, a team of massive workhorses were gracefully driven into position by their teamster. As the horses were ‘hitched’ to the sled in one continuous motion, they exploded in a breathtaking display of muscle, power and dirt. I was hit with a kaleidoscope of emotions, from wonder to sorrow. In that moment, the whole history of the horse’s central but now largely forgotten role in human history flashed before me. It was this moment that inspired me to make Workhorse.

JM: What was the film’s impact on those in the film?
CC: When I first encountered the horse pull at the Kinmount Fair, I had just come from filming with gold miners 7000ft underground. I was thinking a lot about labor, resource extraction, and our relationship with nature. I started drawing connections between the mining, logging and farming industries in Canada from this perspective. These connections represented a history of colonialism and capitalism, yet one of the connections that I had not considered was the horse. I discovered Ann Norton Green’s excellent book Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America. In it, Green convincingly argues that horses were central to commercial and industrial development in nineteenth-century America. At their peak, horses were bred and maintained as living machines essential to both everyday life and commercial development, but their numbers and importance eventually declined with the emergence of the steam and combustion engines. If nineteenth-century America was dominated by a society of horses and humans living and working together, I was interested in what became of that relationship now.

In the making of Workhorse I found that there were very few people still working with horses today. In Ontario, only a small number of teamsters remain and this number continued to decline even as we filmed. A common theme that emerged was the question of succession. Each of the teamsters that we meet in the film had inherited their skills from a previous generation, and they had since accumulated some 30 to 40 years of experience working with horses. The question of whether or not the next generation would carry that knowledge forward loomed large. Each of the chapters in our film represents a unique history and lineage of working with horses, and the question of succession for each teamster we meet results in a different fate.

JM: Why did you choose to shoot the film in black & white?
CC: The decision to present Workhorse in black and white was there from the beginning. I wanted the film to immerse the viewer in the sensorial world of the horses and their teamsters. For my cinematographer Ryan A. Randall and I, black and white photography was the only way to faithfully express the rich tones, textures and detail of this world. From the hair of the horses, to the leather of the harnesses, to the soil of the land, this world presented in black & white somehow felt more real to us. We employed this rich aesthetic approach in our sound design as well.

For me, the black and white photography of the film also seemed to convey a past, present and future of horses all at once. This satisfied a conceptual desire to reference specific representations of horses and rural life found in the history of cinema and documentary film. Horses were not only central to commercial and industrial development in the nineteenth century, they also played a central role in the emergence of cinema. The connection between cinema and industry emerged with the early motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, and our film Workhorse makes reference to this.

Thinking further about the history of documentary film, I was interested in exploring the history of representing rural life and settler culture in Canada. Through the cinematography of Workhorse, I was specifically interested in referencing the 1958 film Les raquetteurs (The Snowshoers) by Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx. Les raquetteurs is a landmark film of the Cinéma Direct documentary movement that emerged from the National Film Board of Canada in Quebec in the early 1960s. Key to the Cinéma Direct movement was a mobile camera that plunged into the action of rural life and culture to aesthetically and politically address its subject. I was interested in exploring this idea in the cinematography of Workhorse.

JM: This is superb.  Thank you so much for the depth of your conversation with us, your audience. I had forgotten the Muybridge reference.  Of course, those of us in the lower 48 have an entire history tied to the labor and service of horses; a lot of it shameful and exploitative. It is your film, however, that brings intimacy to the fore between men and animal partners.


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