Dir. Bradley Beesley on screening at SILVERDOCS

Time matters in prison. A lot. Inmates stack time by the week, the month, the year. The hour, the minute, the second? They don’t figure in so much. Yet once a year at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, eight seconds becomes the most important time in the world as teams from 12 facilities come together to compete in the Oklahoma Prison Rodeo, billed as the world’s only “behind the walls” rodeo. Eight seconds is the qualifying time for a score in bull riding, the most popular competition among the rough-stock events. For the contestants, the bragging rights that come with winning are as much a prize as the money. Director Bradley Beesley takes us inside the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security institution for women, as inmates compete and train for slots on the 2007 rodeo teams. Rough-stock rodeo is brutal and dangerous, and serious injuries are common. Women have been allowed to compete only since 2006, and the male inmates often seem surprised to discover that the women are equal competitors. But the challenges of preparing for the rodeo are presented in contrast to the other, more serious trials of prison life. The boredom of unchanging days, the tension of parole hearings and the longing for family all receive as much attention as the rodeo in Beesley’s engaging and highly empathetic portrayal of his subjects.

Filmmaker Q&A

Introduce yourself:
SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO is another chapter in Bradley Beesley’s cinematic career documenting oddball Americana, strange sub-cultures, and homegrown rock stars. Post art school and somewhat damaged, he began drinking moonshine and filming with legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside to make his first movie HILL STOMP HOLLAR (SXSW) in 1999. He has since directed 8 feature-length films, including 6 documentaries, a concert film and a sci-fi narrative. Bradley is the producer and director of the backwoods cult classic OKIE NOODLING (PBS). The film chronicles the lost art of bare-handed catfishing in his home state of Oklahoma and continues to have encore broadcasts nationwide. After collecting over 400 hours of footage, in 2005, Shout! Factory released THE FEARLESS FREAKS, a documentary chronicling and starring The Flaming Lips. He has collaborated on over 15 music videos with the Grammy award winning Lips in as many years, and directed their first ever live DVD, UFOS AT THE ZOO (Warner Bros.) Last year saw the release of the science fiction picture CHRISTMAS ON MARS (Warner Bros.), co-directed with Lips founder and front man, Wayne Coyne. Other feature documentaries include THE CREEK RUNS RED (Independent Lens), SUMMERCAMP! (Sundance Channel) and UFOS AT THE ZOO (Warner Bros.) His TV credits include “Roller Girls” (A&E), “Paranormal State” (A&E) and most recently “Storm Chasers”. (Discovery) When Bradley is not making films he can be found wading chest-deep through murky Oklahoma rivers or passing out wedgies to his endless mob of nieces and nephews.

What inspired this film?   How did you find your subjects?
As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I had heard about and read about the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo but never attended the event in person. I was a suburban kid that didn’t grow up going to rodeos and I had never met anyone who had been to prison so to me this rodeo with convicts seemed like a mythical and freakish event, albeit in my home state. Cut to 2006 and I was living in San Francisco and I read an article in the Washington Post, which announced that for the first time in Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo history female inmates would be competing against the male inmates.  Because I had already thought this would make a good short film and now that females were added, I was compelled. I called my buddy in Oklahoma, James (our producer) and I booked a ticket that night and arrived at the rodeo the next day with a camera in-hand. James and I shot 7-8 interviews with inmates before the rodeo began and I remember being very intimidated by the surroundings and people. It was all the things you think a prison will be -cold, clinical and strange but also that first day of filming in the prison had an otherworldy/David Lynch tone to it.  After the interviews I was second-guessing this project. Did we want to spend years filming in a prison, did these men and women, some of whom are in for murder, deserve our attention? Do these people really need a voice? Not to mention the fact that most prison and rodeo documentaries are boring. These thoughts stewed with James and I as we filmed the actual rodeo event that night. This all changed when one of our interviewees mounted a bull. Although we had only spent a few minutes speaking with this man in for murder and learning his back story, I was now somehow invested in his well-being and really wanted to see him ride this bucking beast. He only rode the animal for a few seconds but when he came back he was grinning ear-to-ear, the fans were going nuts and I gave him a high-five.  He looked very proud and I felt proud to know him and it was then that I felt like this could be a real film.

What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?
The biggest challenge was trying to keep our cinematographer well fed. Because he’s a giant he needs to eat every 2-hours but the prison food was so bad he refused it. So we would sneak contraband (snacks for giants) into the prison.

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
Les Blank, Terry Zwigoff, Sam Green, Tom DiCillo, David Gordon Green, John Cassavetes and Steve Buscemi.

What is your all time favorite documentary?

What other projects are in the pipeline?
Hopefully lots of outreach, international screenings and promoting SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO.

Why did you become a filmmaker?
Because I am not very employable and I love getting to reinvent my life with each new film -much like a pirate. I love production. Going out on location and collecting spontaneous film footage is the best. And, being able to surround yourself with talented, like-minded friends is really a bonus.

What are some of your creative influences?
Winding rivers, dead bluesmen and Wayne Coyne.

Did you go to film school?
I went to art school and took film classes at The University of Oklahoma School of Fine Arts.

What do you shoot on?
DV, HD, 16mm

What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?
That we sold our film to HBO.

Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?
Because it’s considered one of the best Documentary film festivals in North America and mostly because SILVERDOCS employs loads of really neato people.

Sweethearts on SilverDocs B-side

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