From cult horror to shamanic healing

By Harry van Versendaal

The son of a cowboy father and a Jewish hippie mother, Michel Orion Scott was bound to become an eclectic filmmaker.

The 28-year-old director from the US state of Texas worked as a production assistant on cult-horror blockbuster “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” and is currently working on a documentary about Jewish immigration to Bolivia before the onset of the Second World War.

Scott recently traveled to Kos for the 2nd Ippokratis International Health Film Festival. He left the island with the top audience award for “The Horse Boy,” a feature-length documentary.

The movie follows Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristin as they take their autistic 6-year-old son Rowan on an epic journey by horseback across Mongolia in search of a shaman who they hope can cure their boy.

Scott spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of “The Horse Boy” as well as his future projects.

I read that you’re the son of a cowboy father and a Jewish hippie mother. In what ways would you say this has influenced who you are and what you do?

My interests have always been really eclectic, which is one of the reasons I love making documentary films so much. One month I can be exploring autism, the next animals and hunting, and the next dance and painting. I get to be a child and dive into new adventures all the time. I think that growing up with parents who came together despite their divergent interests started me on this path.

What made you choose this specific theme?

I didn’t pick it so much as it picked me. When I first met Rupert and Kristin, I saw the incredible dedication they had to their child. I saw that they would literally go to the ends of the earth to find a way into his life. When Rupert told me that he would be traveling with Rowan across Mongolia on horseback searching for shamans who he thought may be able to heal his son, I knew instantly that this was a film that had to be made.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making this film?

I planned for the shoot for five months but nothing could have prepared me for the physical difficulty of shooting video from atop a horse. After the second day, my entire body ached from head to toe. Most of the time, I would hold the reins in one hand, camera in the other as I trotted from the front of the line to the back, getting a variety of shots, then heading in to film interviews with Rupert and Kristin on horseback. Justin Hennard, our sound man, literally had his sound mixers attached to saddlebags while he operated the boom from the saddle. The making of this film in itself could have become a tremendously comedic documentary. Good fortune was on our side, though. In the end, we pulled it off with few major setbacks.

How easy was it for the shamans to let you into their locale and shoot the rituals?

The first set of shamans on the sacred mountain never questioned the camera’s presence. They were deep in trance and did not seem bothered by the extra activity around them. They had been told beforehand, though, that the ceremony would be filmed. [The shaman] Ghoste, however, first said that he would not allow his ceremony to be filmed. I was OK with that, of course. I did not want to interfere with the natural course of Rupert and Kristin’s journey. I was sure that we would be able to work around it in the editing process. Eventually, though, once we had explained to Ghoste the reasons for wanting to film – so that we could bring this story of love, adventure and acceptance back to the rest of the world – he seemed to understand and ended up allowing us to film.

Did you deliberately keep a distance from all the metaphysical stuff? Do you really think that Rowan was healed?

I don’t deliberately keep a distance from the metaphysical stuff. I believe that for every action, there are a thousand different interpretations. I also believe that not everything has to be explained for it to be understood. I do, absolutely, think that Rowan was healed. I was there for it after all. The reasons that he was healed, however, are not so cut-and-dry. It could have been the shamans, or the fact that Rowan was in a completely new atmosphere, meeting new people, or that his parents intentions and deep dedication somehow affected him on this journey. Most likely, I suspect, it was all of these combined.

How is Rowan now?

Rowan is doing incredibly well. He has never regressed. He continues to read and write and communicate at an accelerated rate. But as Rupert says at the end of the film, Rowan is still autistic. It is part of who he is. This is an important part of the message. Rowan was not “cured.” He was “healed” – as were Rupert and Kristin, and, in some ways, myself.

What impact will the movie have in your opinion? Do you hope to convey any specific message?

I hope that this film makes people think about how we can make space for unique individuals in our culture instead of institutionalizing them or trying to mold them to fit our rigid perception of what “normal” is.

At some point in the movie, you put down the camera to give the parents a hand. How often did you have to do this?

I did my best to keep the camera rolling as often as possible. I did put the camera down a couple of times to help the parents. I was a guest on their journey and it was important for me to not forget that. They were allowing me to peer into and film the most intimate parts of their lives. Given this, I had to respect their wishes when [I was] told not to film.

To what extent did the parents have to adapt their journey and daily schedule to the needs of the film and the crew?

I worked very hard to adapt my schedule around the schedule of the parents. It was very rare that the parents had to alter their course because of the film crew. I went well out of my way to keep this from happening.

And how often did you have to stage scenes in order to achieve a dramatic effect?

No scenes were staged in this film. There were a couple of times that I had Rupert or Kristin repeat something they had done or said if I was unable to capture it on film the first time. With this said, nothing in the film was fabricated or staged for dramatic effect.

You worked as a production assistant on 2006’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” What did you gain from that experience?

I wasn’t long out of college when I got the job. It was quite exhausting, really, and was one of the reasons that I decided to try documentary. Sometimes working on a big-budget narrative film can feel like working in a factory. That said, there were some good times on the set. I really loved seeing how the visual effects crew created gory scenes out of items you would never guess, like bubble wrap and corn syrup.

What is your next project?

I am working on several documentaries. One about traditional agriculture and water rights on the Hopi reservation, one about masculinity in the US, and one about Jewish immigration to Bolivia in the 1930s before the onset of WWII.

Photo by Vasia Anagnostopoulou

“The Horse Boy,” official trailer:

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