This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.
Outside of his ongoing collaboration with The Flaming Lips, Bradley Beesley last tackled the great outdoors with the bare-hand fishing doc “Okie Noodling,” which premiered at SXSW back in 2001. Eight years later, Beesley is once again casting his lens on a sport of a bygone era, though this time he’s stepping indoors — as in the big house — for “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” a look at the Oklahoma penal system’s annual bull riding and horse wrangling competition. Although the prisons take the rodeo quite seriously, complete with in-house saddle shops and mechanical bulls to practice on, no one seems to take it more seriously than the prisoners themselves, who look forward to every August when their minds shift from how much time they have left in their sentence to how long they can stay on a bucking bronco.
Beesley, on the other hand, is far more interested in the inmates than the rodeo action, following a mix of male and female convicts who all have a reasonable shot of parole during the course of the film. There’s Danny Liles, a convicted murderer working his 18th year at the rodeo as well as attempting to reduce his sentence; Jamie Brooks, who was convicted at the age of 17 of 2nd degree murder for her role in a botched robbery; and Brandy “Foxie” White, an inmate who provides one of the most compelling stories as she searches for her family members with the help of a private investigator. Beesley talked with me about how he became interested in the female inmates of Taft, Oklahoma’s Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility and living out a childhood dream of going to the prison rodeo.
How did this film come about?
I grew up in Oklahoma, so I knew about the prison rodeo and always fantasized what it would be like to go, but I was a suburbanite, and even though my grandfather was a world champion cowboy, my dad never took us to rodeos of any kind. In 2006, I heard that they were going to allow female inmates to participate, and I was like, I’ve got to do it. I booked a flight that night, showed up with my camera and my buddy James. We had no idea that we were going to develop this into a feature-length project, but we were so emotionally struck by these inmates and their stories that we were just compelled. Ultimately, it’s a character-driven piece, and the rodeo is a visual palate in which the characters could play.
Since you grew up in Oklahoma, do you think this is the kind of event that could only happen there in this day and age?
And Louisiana. [laugh]
Yes, the film mentions that there were two places in the world that still hold these.
The other one’s in Louisiana. Texas closed their prison rodeo in 1988 due to lack of funding, but it’s kind of impossible that it still goes on and unbelievable that it’s allowed, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. It just seems like such a throwback, it surprises me that it hasn’t completely shut down.
There seems to be a tightrope you walk when dealing with the prison system since filmmakers have a tendency to either demonize or empathize too much with their subjects. Were you conscious of that while making this?
Certainly, and we were conflicted — very conflicted — that we were making Danny Liles into a hero and the same with Jamie and yet they murdered people with families out there, and what does this mean for those victims when they see we’re putting these people up on this pedestal? Ultimately, especially in Jamie’s case, she was 17 years old when she committed this crime and as [her lawyer] says in the film, she’s paid for it. If you look at the backstory of all these women that went to prison, it’s all the same. Their mom went to prison, they dropped out of school when they were 12. There’s a reason that they’re there. They’re not privileged people.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Jamie’s lawyer tells her, “If you’re confident enough to ride a bull, you’re confident enough to stand in front of a parole board.” Although it’s not overtly addressed in the film, did you see the rodeo help with the rehabilitation of these inmates?
I don’t think there’s a lot of rehab going on, but I think they’re building their self-confidence, especially the women. They’ve been beat down by men, whether it was being molested [when they were younger] or the guards talking down to them [in prison], so it was very empowering.
And even to be on the rodeo team, you have to be the best of the best and be on good behavior. Then we as filmmakers had somewhat of an effect. Just having someone talk to them like real people, they haven’t had that, in Jamie’s case, for 13 years. So we were just trying to humanize these ladies and make them real people.
Ben [Steinbauer, the director] was my roommate and I brought home the video of the Winnebago guy and turned him onto it, so late night every night for three years, anybody that came to our house, we would show them this video and then collectively, [we were like] “we’ve got to find this guy!” And kudos to Ben for sticking with it, because I was like I don’t know if it’s worth it, and then two years later, I’m up there with Ben and we’re filming the Winnebago guy.
As for your own career, now that you’ve done this film and “Okie Noodling,” what other Midwestern off-the-beaten-path sport is left for you to document?
I don’t know. I feel like I’ve tapped the odd resources within Oklahoma and I wouldn’t mind branching out. I’m working on a narrative script right now. I’m sure I’ll make another film about Oklahoma, but it’s probably going to be [later]. But right now, we’re just going to enjoy this. I’m looking forward to many screenings with the ladies.