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Filmmaker Cindy Meehl roped in by ‘Buck’

Meehl's Sundance-winning biopic seems to have universal appeal.

Ride ‘em cowboy? Not exactly.

First-time director Cindy Meehl, slotted to unleash her richly textured and visually stunning documentary “Buck” on the Independent Film Festival of Boston (IFFBoston) at next weekend, has crafted a horse tale of a different breed. 

Her Sundance-winning biopic following Buck Brannaman, a charismatic cowboy who inspired the novel and film “The Horse Whisperer,” transcends the boots-and-saddles stereotype. Instead, it paints a portrait of a man who channels the pain of his violent childhood to help people communicate with their horses through instinct, not punishment, and weaves together the narrative of an unsung hero with an unorthodox approach to training.

According to “Buck,” horses are a mirror of the human soul.

Meehl, who first met the no-nonsense trainer at a clinic in 2003, says Brannaman’s keep-it-simple message seems to have universal appeal. “What’s been amazing and very rewarding is that everywhere we go, we sell out. People are crying because [the film] has such a universal message,” she remarked.

“When we were at Sundance, Buck and I really enjoyed doing the high-school screenings and the kids were treating him like a rock star. One teacher came up to us and said that every teacher in America should see this film. There’s such a crossover between dealing with a young colt and dealing with kids. It’s just so vast, it’s blowing my mind.”

The 52-year-old filmmaker, who owns two horses in Connecticut, says her mission was to craft a documentary that appealed to a broad audience. “I came to it from a horse place, but we were careful when we were editing to make a film that also appeals to non-horse audiences. I knew if I could convey what moved me about Buck that people would be enlightened--which was my main goal … to give people hope.”

“When I was around him at clinics, he really did help you deal with a lot of things from confronting fear to being a leader,” she continued. “There are so many aspects to what he teaches with the horses. Not a lot of things impress me. But he did.”

Brannaman’s one-liners, or ‘Buck-isms,’ fuel the story of an ordinary man who has built an extraordinary life despite having the odds firmly stacked against him. Meehl said that during filming, she witnessed people making significant life changes after attending one of his clinics. In fact, some women became so empowered by Brannaman’s philosophies that they went home and divorce their husbands after attending his camps.

“One of the things he teaches that I really like: ‘if it’s not working then change it.’ He would say that human beings are the only species that will continue to do the same thing over and over with absolutely no results … and they’ll do it with devotion. That’s a really powerful statement to me,” Meehl explained. “Whether it’s an abusive father or something else, we all have tragic things in our lives. I don’t think anyone escapes that. The message of this film is that you don’t have to carry that with you. You can move on and live in the moment and in the day.”

Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford, who also directed and starred in the 1998 movie “The Horse Whisperer,” makes a brief cameo in “Buck.” Redford seems to be equally impressed with the trainer’s sensitivity to the fragility of the human-animal condition. Besides being the inspiration for Redford’s character, Tom Booker, Brannaman was also his stunt double throughout the film.

However, Meehl insists that the Sundance founder’s prior relationship with the horse trainer didn’t influence the documentary’s audience-favorite success at the 2011 festival.

“Robert Redford is extremely busy and it took us a year of going back and forth to get the interview. I do think he really likes Buck but he doesn’t play favorites,” Meehl remarked. “What I learned about [Redford] at Sundance is that he’s all about quality and he loves film. I also get that he doesn’t like some of the bells and whistles that come along with the festival. So, I don’t think he would champion ‘Buck’ on any level if he didn’t think it was a good film.”

Similar to her experience with Redford, the first-time director says she didn’t get any special treatment from Brannaman during the filming process. “I don’t know if it’s conveyed well in the film, but he’s such a hard worker and he never complains… so, you don’t whine and you don’t make excuses. He’s tough. It’s not like he’s ever going to coddle you.”

“If you think you’re going in to get a mental, verbal stroking as far as him telling you how great you’re are, it’s not going to happen,” Meehl continued. “It doesn’t happen if you’re on a horse and it doesn’t happen if you’re making a film about him.”

Cindy Meehl will attend the screening of “Buck” at the IFFBoston 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 1 at the Somerville Theatre. For more information, call 617-625-5700 or visit iffboston.org.

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