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A Conversation With 'Unbranded' Producer Cindy Meehl


The new documentary, now showing in Durango, touches on manhood, public lands, and the plight of wild horses. Meehl spoke recently with KSUT's Mark Duggan.

In the new documentary Unbranded, four young men adopt and train a group of wild mustangs, then ride them across 3,000 miles of public land, from Mexico to Canada.

The route they chose took them through some of the most remote and rugged land in the American West.

Why? It's a trip of “self discovery,” according to one of the young filmmakers.

Ben Masters, called the “Mastermind” of Unbranded, put it another way:

“I'm not ready to buy a house and get married and have kids yet. I want to have fun, and do some crazy adventure like this while I can.”

Masters and a couple of friends made an initial 2,000 mile journey along the spine of the Continental Divide in 2010, using both domestic pack horses and recently adopted mustangs. He became interested in the issue of wild horses, and hatched to plan to make a film about it and another trip.

Unbranded features Masters, along with Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover, and Ben Thamer, and sixteen horses. And a film crew.

Cindy Meehl, Executive Producer of Unbranded, said when she first heard of the project, she thought it sounded like a “nightmare” to film.

“But these guys are so determined,” she said. “And honestly, they did it. Technically, it was an almost impossible feat.”

The route Masters chose took them through five states, staying almost entirely on public land, and in deep wilderness.

There are several interlinking stories in Unbranded, including about how the men learn more about themselves and the landscape. But a larger issue carries the moral weight of Unbranded: 50,000 wild horses and burros that are living in government pens and pastures. Most are unwanted, but all await new homes.

As Meehl became involved in the film, and researched the issue of wild horses, she found it to be much more complex than she'd expected.

The 3,000-mile-long route of Unbranded, staying almost entirely in public lands.

“I came away with a different opinion of it,” said Meehl. “And maybe a little more concern and dismay that it didn't seem there was a clear-cut answer.”

It became paramount that Unbranded handle the wild horse issue with honesty, something that Executive Director Meehl felt was accomplished. And viewers seem to agree, if the comments at recent showings are any indication.

“We've been applauded for that,” Meehl said. “We haven't sugarcoated it, or given one side.”

Another theme in Unbranded is that of youthful “self-discovery,” something Meehl can relate to through her own daughter. When told about the film her mother was producing, Meehl's daughter explained that all of her peers wanted to do something exciting just out of college, instead of falling into a routine. Maybe not a 3,000 mile ride across the Interior West, just a trip to Europe.

“So many people I know jumped right into the real world of business,” added Meehl. “They look back and think, 'I wish I just taken a month or two months...'”

And that's part of the message of Unbranded: It's out there. Go do it.

“These guys did something that I think is living the dream, said Meehl. “I mean, to me, it would be really rough to ride a horse 3,000 miles like they did.

But I think everyone has their Unbranded ride.”

Unbranded plays at the Animas City Theatre in Durango through October 8.

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