Mustang Crisis: An Interview with Filmmaker Kurt Brungardt

August 3, 2010

by Equitrekking host Darley Newman

For the past seven months, Kurt Brungardt has been immersed in America’s Wild Mustang controversy, shooting a short documentary with Jeff Roth, Mustang Crisis, a follow up to his provocative 2006 Vanity Fair article, “Galloping Scared.”

When Brungardt traveled to Washington, D.C. to cover the March for Mustangs rally for his documentary, I had the chance to spend the day with him as he filmed the controversy surrounding America’s Mustangs firsthand. With Kurt, I met author and naturalist Hope Ryden, PBS documentarian Ginger Kathrens, actress Wendie Malick and other influential supporters of America’s Mustangs and learned more about both sides of the issue.

Brungardt recently released a short documentary on Vanity Fair’s website, which presents a possible solution to the Wild Horse issue in America’s western states. You can view his documentary Mustang Crisis on Vanity Fair's website.

Having filmed the Mustangs at McCullough Peaks in Wyoming for Equitrekking's Wyoming episode, I know how captivating and inspiring these horses are in person and on film. I was interested to know more about what inspired Brungardt to document the Mustang issue through film in Mustang Crisis.

Darley Newman: You’ve been covering the wild horse issue in America for several years, what originally inspired you to dig deeper into this story?

Kurt Brungardt: It was Wild Horse Annie's story that first got me interested in the topic. But it was Senator Conrad Burns of Montana and his “midnight rider” that inspired me to write the Vanity Fair story.  Senator Burn’s midnight rider worked roughly like this.  He secretly inserted a change into a 3,000-page omnibus budget bill that was up for a vote the next day. No one had a chance to review his insert and the budget bill passed out of necessity to keep the government funded and working. The change Burns covertly inserted gutted the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act. The revised law cut into the heart of the act, making it legal for wild horses to be sold without limitation to the highest bidder, taking away a key federal protection and most likely sending thousands of mustangs to slaughter houses.  By doing this he negated Wild Horse Annie’s life work and acted counter to the will of the majority of Americans who supported the original law.  I felt like it needed to be exposed in the national media.

Newman: What motivated you to use film as a medium to cover the story for Mustang Crisis?

Brungardt: When I was working on the article, I just kept thinking people need to see this.  It is so visually powerful and provocative.  It is the west in the 21st century.  The landscape, the horses, a lot of the old west still exists.  It’s obviously changed, but the history, the artifacts, and the attitudes still live on.

Newman: As a producer myself, I know how long it takes to put together a documentary. What was your process for “Mustang Crisis”? Did you know the main plot line from the beginning or did it develop over time? 

Brungardt: For this piece, I knew it had to focus on the hard news story of the Calico Roundup and the lawsuit. But that’s still very broad because of all it pulls in with it.  It brings up the whole history of the law, the history of BLM management, etc.  So as the story evolved for a ten-minute piece, the focus narrowed to looking at a solution that was on the table.  Once that throughline was established, we really started to make our choices for the first rough cut and write the voiceover for context and transitions.  We wanted to show as much as possible in scenes and let the participants voice their point of view.

Newman: What were your biggest challenges in making this film?

Brungardt: Like with all films, time and money.  It’s an exhaustive and exhilarating process.  Unlike writing, it takes more people power and equipment, and extensive time and energy in post-production.

Newman: You covered Wild Horse Annie’s story in your 2006 Galloping Scared article for Vanity Fair. Is there a contemporary “Wild Horse Annie” still crusading for the horses today? Who are the other key players tied to this issue? 

Brungardt: Yes there are a lot heroes still fighting for the horses.  Almost all of them are women.  Karen Sussman is doing amazing work in herd dynamics.  She continues Annie’s work and heads one of the organizations Annie started:  ISPMB (International Society for the Protection of the Mustangs and Burros). Ginger Kathrens has the Cloud Foundation.  Ginger made an amazing series of documentaries called, Cloud, The Wild Stallion of the Rockies.  She has been following the life of a lead Stallion from birth to present time.  I believe for 15 years now.  There are local activists like Sally Summers with Nevada Horse Power, and powerful new figures who have also entered the issue and made an impact like Madeleine Pickens.  The list could go on an on. 

Newman: In your short documentary, you present one potential solution to this controversial issue. Is this the best solution you’ve heard about so far? 

Brungardt: I think this is one solution in one particular case, but what it represents is key to an ultimate solution.  It is an attempt to manage the horses on the range and on the ground.  This would be a radical and positive change.  This would save the taxpayers money and be better for the horses.  Now the horses are managed from the air with indiscriminate helicopter roundups. The horses are then removed, processed like livestock and relocated to expensive private holding facilities in the Midwest.  It’s the three R’s of BLM management that are so destructive:  roundup, removal, and relocation.  This policy, according to the latest court case appears to be illegal.

Newman: You've traveled to view Mustangs throughout the American West. What are the most striking attributes of the American Mustang? 

Brungardt: The mustangs are like the famous inkblot test.  Everyone sees something different.  What struck me most was their sense of community in the micro and the macro.  In the micro, it was their family band-- how they functioned as a group, sharing responsibilities and raising the young foals.  In the macro, it was how the different family bands functioned in a larger community.  I was struck by how they used the watering hole.  They shared it so well.  Each family band would come down, drink, the young foals would splash around, then they’d move out. It struck me how different that is than our human world.  All our resources are fenced off, hoarded, and monetized.  Follow the money is a sad cliché. We live in an economically driven world. That is a reality.  I am as guilty as anyone.  But it seems like we could learn something from the horses about maintaining a balance.

Newman: You traveled quite a bit to make this film. Where did you go and what round-ups were you able to view yourself?

Brungardt: For the piece in Vanity Fair, we shot primarily in northwest Nevada, in the Calico Mountains.  It is a beautiful and lush area on top of a major aquifer.  The landscape varies from high desert to Aspen groves, rushing streams, lakes, natural hot springs and wild sage. Roundups took place in this location for about a five-week period.  I’ve also spent time in the Pryor Mountains in Montana, and the Sandwash Basin in northwest Colorado.

Newman: Were there incidents in making this film that were emotional for you? Where were you and what happened? 

Brungardt: I think the most emotional element is witnessing the roundup process.  You see the horses’ confusion and despair as they are being separated from their family bands.  From the moment they are captured their lives are radically disrupted and changed forever.

Newman: Now that you’ve completed Mustang Crisis, will you continue to cover this story? What are your future plans?   

Brungardt: We’re working on a feature length documentary, so we’ll continue to follow the story.

Watch Kurt Brungardt's documentary Mustang Crisis at VanityFair.com.  

Topics: 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act, Calico Roundup, Galloping Scarred, Jeff Roth, Kurt Brungardt, Mustang Crisis, Vanity Fair