Director: Sean Cisterna
Sean Cisterna’s engaging documentary, The Long Rider, follows the epic horseback journey made by a young Brazilian-born Canadian, Filipe Masetti Leite, from Calgary to his childhood home in Sãu Paolo, Brazil.
Filipe’s childhood timidity is overcome when he reads Aimé Felix Tschiffely’s 1933 account of his journey from Argentina to Washington D.C. The title The Long Rider, we learn, refers to equestrian explorers such as Tschiffley who make solo journeys of a thousand miles or more.
We follow Filipe as he prepares for the adventure, first learning the art of horse packing to ready his two horses, Frenchie and Bruiser, to carry all his possessions. He will ride at a steady pace, three kilometers an hour, for thirty kilometers a day for a journey that may take two years. The first part of his route will take him across Canada and down through the USA to the border with Mexico. From then on he knows he will have to face logistical problems of border crossings between each of the countries of Central America. Finally he hopes to ride through Peru and at last each ‘home’, as he calls Espírito Santo Do Pinhal, the town where he was born.
Filipe is a delightful figure, warm and open-hearted, readily admitting to mistakes and happy to share the extreme highs and lows of the journey. He immediately regrets setting off in the summer heat with the pressure to cross to Mexico before winter sets in. Early on Bruiser gives Frenchie a nasty bite on the back, so the journey must be paused while the wound heals. Beyond physical trials, Filipe has to face an intense kind of loneliness, describing it as like having stone in your shoe: at first you try to ignore it, but you can’t ever forget about it. For short stretches he is accompanied first by his long-suffering girlfriend, Emma, and later by his father. Crowds sometimes appear to cheer him on or ride alongside him. But there is a state beyond loneliness and as time passes we get a powerful sense of Filipe’s sheer delight in forever riding onwards across the unknown.
Director Sean Cisterna avoids turning The Long Rider into a travelogue, allowing the breath-taking cinematography, directed by Filipe himself, to do the work of a spoken commentary. Cisterna makes us feel the meditative pace of journey on horseback, but intercuts it with a scenes from unforeseen incidents on the ride, together with an eloquent interview Filipe gives after his return. There are some terrifying moments. He and the horses have to cross a suspension bridge high over a chasm. Then there is the Million Dollar Highway, a narrow, winding road with mountain wall to one side and a sheer drop of 11,000 feet on the other. He is warned against attempting it and knows that if either horse spooks, all three could be plunged to their deaths.
From Mexico onwards he comes face to face with the reality of drug smuggling and the merciless cartels which control the routes. He decides to refuse hospitality from anyone involved in drugs. ‘Well, that went out the window,’ he admits cheerfully, showing himself companionably sharing a meal with a normal family – normal, that is, except for their dependence on the drug trade. But it is maddening and corrupt bureaucracy that almost scuppers the trip. He is stuck for 91 days in Ecuador as border guards refuse to let him pass, while demanding ludicrous bribes.
But he wins through and enjoys a rapturous welcome in Sãu Paolo. But how will Filipe cope with ordinary life now? The Long Rider doesn’t duck the question and the mood darkens as he admits things begin to fall apart. It would be a good place to end. But the film’s ultimate ending proves something of a mis-step, crowding details of a whole new adventure and romances into the final minutes. But overall it is an exhilarating ride.
The Long Rider was screened at the Dances with Films Film Festival in LA.