Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo director Bradley Beesley
C&I asks Beesley about his film that follows female convicts who compete in a statewide competition for Oklahoma prisoners.
Cowboys & Indians: You've gotten a lot of exposure for Okie Noodling, your documentary about fishermen who use their bare hands to catch catfish in your native state of Oklahoma. Now you're making the film festival circuit with Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, a movie about female convicts who compete in a statewide competition for Oklahoma prisoners.
Bradley Beesley: That's right. It's a prison rodeo that's been around since the 1940s. They call it "the only behind-the-walls rodeo in the world."
Illustration by Sam Sisco
C&I: Do you think of yourself as a kind of anthropologist, studying oddities in Oklahoma?
Bradley: [Laughs.] My uncle says I'm the anti-Will Rogers of Oklahoma. But I just think it's a case of me examining all these topics I've grown up with. They've just stewed with me for years.
C&I: What got you interested in making Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo?
Bradley: To be honest, I never dreamed I would ever make a prison film or a rodeo film. Most prison documentaries bore me to tears. And rodeo documentaries have already been done, you know? But once my producer James Payne and I realized that women would be included in the mix — we figured that would be novel enough for us to show up with our cameras. Which we did — unannounced, basically. That was back in 2006, when they first announced that women were going to participate in this event.
C&I: So you just showed up at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma, and expected them to let you in?
Bradley: Well, we did call the day before we arrived. But we didn't know who we were going to meet, or whether they were going to let us film. But they let us shoot, and we produced a short — which we premiered here [at Austin's SXSW Film Festival] in 2007. And we got some really positive feedback based on the short, which we used to attract funding for a feature-length documentary.
C&I: Of course, when you're working on this sort of project, so much is a matter of chance. Because you never know what's going to happen to the subjects you "cast" for your documentary.
Bradley: True enough. You've got to get lucky. But what we did was, we picked girls who were hopefully going to get out of prison within a year, or two years, because we wanted their stories to have some kind of resolution. And we also picked girls who, for lack of a better term, had drama in their back stories. But even then you don't know what's going to happen.
Like, we didn't know one of them would get kicked off the rodeo team for receiving contraband. And at first, we were devastated. Here's one of our main "characters" — Jamie Brooks, who did very well the first year women could compete — and she gets kicked off the team, and we're freaking out.
But after a couple of days, we realize that, for better or worse, it's sort of the best thing that could have happened — for us — because it gave us a bigger arc for her character. For a while it looked like that was going to mess up her parole, after 13 years in prison. But Jamie made parole — and even appeared here in Austin for the premiere screening.
Joe Leydon talks to Beesley and Sweethearts producer James Payne
C&I: The actual rodeo competition footage in the movie is very impressive. Was it difficult to film?
Bradley: Look, I'll admit: Whenever I was down there in a chute with one of these women on a bull, I was shaking. I mean, I wasn't doing a very good job shooting at all. In fact, I'd forget I was shooting because I'd get so wrapped up in watching these ladies that we'd come to care about mounting a bull. It was really hard to film.
C&I: By the end of Okie Noodling, you were fishing barehanded yourself. While you were making this movie, were you inspired to try riding bulls?
Bradley: Well, we got so close to these women on the rodeo team while we were making this movie, and the administrators at the prison facility were so comfortable with us being there, that they would let us mount this barrel they had up on ropes for the women to practice on. And then the women would shake us on the barrel. And that was kinda fun. But given the injuries we've seen occur at the rodeo — I don't think that's something I want to do as someone who hasn't really trained.