A new French short film is continuing the European tradition of engagement with the Western genre. Buffalo Rising, released in 2014, is a 15-minute tale set in the South Dakota of 1890. Directed by Pierre-Yves Hampartzoumain, with screenplay by Laurent Bertin and Hampartzoumian, the story focuses upon Tom (Laurent Bertin) and his young son, Jack (Aurele Bertin), as they push cattle to market. Tom’s hope is that their sale will stake a move to and new life for them in California. The threat they encounter on the trail will endanger more than just the idea of a new home.
Opening with a landscape shot, Tom and Jack soon cross paths with a herd of buffalo, described by father to son as “kings” of the Plains who were “respected by Indians and slaughtered by white men”. When Jack asks if they will take one for food, Tom replies that he is done with killing them, adding that “one day men will regret killing them all”. The film grounds this dialogue in real historical context. Conservative estimates are that the American bison numbered some 25 million at the time of European arrival in North America in the late 15th century. By the mid-19th century, however, settler governments had encouraged the slaughter of buffalo be it for meat, hides, or sport, and as a way to force resistant Plains tribes onto reservations. In the mid-1870s alone there were more than 10 million buffalo killed with just 2000 wild bison left as the 20th century dawned.
The threat that father and son will face is hinted at by the presence of two shadowy riders at a distance, looking toward their camp with a telescope before riding off. One of the centerpiece scenes in the film between father and son then takes place, as they eat around their campfire and Tom informs Jack that he will kill an orphaned young cow the next day so they can have meat. Jack says that the cow can still make the trip, even without its mother, to which Tom replies that it can’t “without family”. The son’s comparison of his father’s plan to the killing of buffalo brings an angry rebuke from Tom. The next day’s events will prove, metaphorically, that both Jack and Tom are correct. Here is a preview clip for Buffalo Rising:
A short film succeeds when, like a short story, it remains focused on a small number of characters within a defined framework. While some curiosity is raised about the backstory of father and son, Buffalo Rising remains centered on the immediate challenges faced by Tom and Jack within a small geographic area. The ideas raised by the film, notions of family and the passages of life, are larger and more universal than a short movie or even the Western genre, but they are presented in tandem with the tightly-sketched set piece.
Buffalo Rising, shot at Randals Bison Ranch in France, draws on something that Westerns such The Long Riders (1980) did to tell the story of the James-Younger Gang – real family connections within the acting roles. The characters Tom and Jack are played by a real-life father and son, with Aurele Bertin having tested independently for the part of Jack. With that in mind, the father-son dynamic is particularly poignant throughout the film.
Buffalo Rising received seven nominations at the 2015 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. The film is currently on the festival circuit. Further information about the movie can be found at the Facebook page Buffalo Rising.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)