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‘Fire on the Hill’: Film Review | DOC NYC 2018

Brett Fallentine’s documentary portrait of three L.A. urban cowboys is being showcased at DOC NYC after winning a jury prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

“It’s not a white or a black thing” — so says one of the three central figures in Fire on the Hill, talking idealistically about what it means to be a cowboy. He knows that, as a black man, historically he’s been the cowboy’s quarry (or maybe his faithful sidekick), but not the hero on the horse. This modern-day buckaroo, like Brett Fallentine’s well-observed film, embraces a burnished Wild West archetype while redefining it.

Winner of the LA Muse Documentary Award at the LA Film Festival, the expectation-defying doc focuses on a disparate trio of modern-day Los Angeles cowboys: the visionary, the athlete and the player. Hooves clip-clop beneath freeway overpasses and the whoosh of traffic, the film conjuring a mood of poetic lament for a threatened way of life. But though writer-director Fallentine is intrigued with bygone ways, his film isn’t awash in nostalgia; the elegiac feeling is pierced with glimpses of gritty social realities and the quirks of personal drive. 

Equestrian neighborhoods dot the suburban northern stretches of Los Angeles, but less well known is the riding culture that took root in South L.A. decades ago. The film’s title refers to one of the area’s longest-operating stables, known as The Hill, and the act of arson that led to its demise — an especially cruel act targeting an exceptionally winning horse, according to some of Fallentine’s interviewees. But they have no interest in naming names, and the alleged facts of the incident are acknowledged only briefly in a film that’s more concerned with the cowboys’ continued viability, and whether their traditions can withstand the digital age.

Of the three profiled riders, Ghuan Featherstone (who wrote and performed some of the songs on the film’s excellent music soundtrack) is the most forward-looking and community-minded. Two years after the fire, he’s determined to resurrect the fallow Hill property and relentlessly trying to track down its absentee landlord. Underscoring what a lonely pursuit he’s embarked on, Fallentine zeros in on the ambivalence of Featherstone’s neighbors when he tries to rally their support. Even more dispiriting is the vehement local opposition to a proposed equestrian center at a new park. 

There’s a different kind of aloneness for Compton native Chris Byrd as he pursues a career on the rodeo circuit. The cameras follow him during his rookie year, serious and focused on earning a place in the regional finals. Byrd is a rider who must wear blinders of a sort: Driving through his neighborhood, he points out the street corners where relatives were gunned down, but, having “learned from their mistakes,” he chooses not to dwell on their fates.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is vintage footage of Charles Sampson, the first black rodeo world champion, a vet of The Hill and Byrd’s role model. Fallentine might have provided a bit more info, even a date or two, on this 1982 champ (who’s now 61). But for all the unanswered questions, there’s an emotional pull to the way the director evokes Sampson as a trailblazer whose legacy still inspires L.A. cowboys.

In Featherstone’s vision the cowboy credo might not be “a white or a black thing,” yet there’s no question that Byrd’s chosen sport remains predominantly white. The cameras catch the rodeo crowd’s laughing response to the mention of Compton, and the sideways glances at the crowded Arizona honky-tonk where Byrd, accompanied by two of his friends from The Hill, sidles up to the bar.

The story of the third cowboy featured in the film, Calvin Gray, begins on a similar wavelength as those of the other two men: a passion for riding. But Gray buys into his own hyperlocal celebrity: Riding through the nighttime streets of South L.A., he’s a rock star, encouraging women’s come-ons while his marriage falls apart. The more he relishes the role of the hero on the horse, the less heroic he grows. This narrative thread, though, offers compelling looks at what a novelty the cowboys are in neighborhoods continually battered — as the aural backdrop of TV and radio news attests — by crime and institutional neglect.

Cinematographer Bradley Stonesifer captures those battered streets with the same agility he brings to moments of quiet intimacy and physical intensity, whether the action is unfolding in a bull-riding ring or a Board of Supervisors meeting. Silhouetted against a smog-tinged sunset, the cowboys of South Los Angeles at first recall Kirk Douglas’ embattled character in Lonely Are the Brave. Like him, they seem like figures out of their time, but Fire on the Hill isn’t about old-timers refusing to participate in a newfangled world; these cowboys are young men figuring out other ways to make sense of it, and drawing on the past to find their place in it.

 

Production companies: Preamble Pictures in association with RYOT Films, Contend, Enso
Director: Brett Fallentine
Screenwriter: Brett Fallentine
Producers: Brett Fallentine, Jenna Cedicci, Jordana Glick-Franzheim, Steven Amato, Jimmy Greenway, Sean-Michael Smith
Executive producers: Brynn Mooser, Baron Davis, Philip Alberstat, Puya Hosseini, Micah Bongberg
Director of photography: Bradley Stonesifer
Editors: Chase Kenney, Jason Rosenfield, Brett Fallentine, Wyatt Rogowski
Music: Corey Allen Jackson & Swish, Federale, Xoskillz, Andre Harris
Venue: DOC NYC (Wild Life)

84 minutes

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