Ashley Avis was looking to put a modern spin on “Black Beauty,” Anna Sewell’s classic novel about one horse’s struggles and hardships. So when it came time to adapt the book for a new generation of moviegoers, Avis opted to have her equine protagonist be a wild mustang from the Onaqui Mountains of Utah. The film debuted on Disney+ in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, but the journey didn’t end with the release of “Black Beauty.”
While researching issues facing wild horses for that film, Avis discovered the controversial way that government officials are treating the 80,000 wild horses who currently live across 245 million acres of public land. But Avis didn’t stop there. She decided to make a documentary titled “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West,” exploring the effort by the Bureau of Land Management to remove these horses and hold them in captivity to make way for millions of cattle and sheep to graze on the same land.
“I grew up with horses, and I love horses,” Avis says. “But I had no idea this was happening. And that’s upsetting because if horse people don’t know this is happening, what about the general public?”
The bureau has claimed that they do this to ensure that horses don’t become overpopulated or to prevent them from decimating the habitats of wild animals like the sage grouse. But Avis argues that these justifications are ever shifting and spurious.
“They just keep coming up with different reasons,” she says. “They need to be put under a microscope for changing their narrative so many times.”
Avis and her crew spent four years doing just that, and at one point were able to film one of the government’s round-ups. The footage they shot showed officials using helicopters to corral the horses, an approach which the film argues terrifies the animals, leading some to break their legs and necks. “We tried so hard to capture the devastation that we felt watching this,” Avis says.
She believes that part of the issue is a lack of empathy shown by these officials (she says one bureaucrat claimed the horses “just breed, honey. They don’t feel”).
“Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” is looking for distribution, but it has already been making its way around the film festival circuit, screening at the Newport Film Festival and Doc LA, where it won best director and best cinematography. Avis hopes the film will inspire viewers to get involved by writing lawmakers and President Joe Biden. And she wants the movie to spark a wider debate.
“It may start with wild horses, but it’s really about how can we protect our greater wild world,” Avis says. “If we can get people to pay attention to horses, maybe it can create a ripple effect of people realizing what is going on in our public lands. We need to find a better balance of humans living in the world and not just trying to dominate it and control it and bend it to us.”