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January 16, 2009 3:37 AM
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Producer Rupert Isaacson, "Over the Hills and Far Away": Shamans, Mysticism, and a Family's Journey

A scene from Producer Rupert Isaacson's "Over the Hills and Far Away". Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: "Rowan was born in 2001, seven years after his parents met while touring India. His father, Rupert, a British journalist and human-rights activist, and his mother, Kristin, a psychology professor from suburban California, felt the world was their oyster. After their son was diagnosed with autism in 2004, their perfect life began to fall apart. They tried conventional therapies, diets, and medication, all to no avail. Rupert had witnessed the potency of traditional healing and discovered that his son had a special bond with horses. He researched and found a place that combined horseback riding and shamanic healing—Mongolia. The next step was convincing his wife they should take their son to Ulaanbaatar and travel on horseback, searching for the elusive reindeer herders and the most powerful shaman in the country."

"Over The Hills and Far Away"
Documentary Competition
Director: Michel Orion Scott
Producer: Rupert Isaacson
Editor: Rita K. Sanders
Assistant Editor: Michelle Green
Composers: Lili Haydn, Kim Carroll
Sound Recordist: Justin Hennard
Second Camera: Jeremy Bailey
U.S.A., 2008, 93 mins., color

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Rupert Isaacson, I’m the creator, and producer of, "Over The Hills and Far Away." I'm 41, grew up in the UK and live in Austin, TX. I am a writer, journalist, horse trainer, human rights activist – mostly in Africa.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

My son Rowan was diagnosed with autism in 2004. I tried all the orthodox treatments but the two things that seemed to most dramatically help my son were his relationship with a particular horse – a mare that when he rode her with me seemed to bring out language – and exposure to some bushman shamans when I had to bring a delegation of San Bushman hunter gatherers to the UN the same year Rowan was diagnosed. His reactions to both the horse and the healers was so radical and positive that I wondered, if there could be a place on the planet that combined horses and traditional healing. There was – Mongolia. So I wondered what would happen if I took Rowan there, riding on horseback from shaman to shaman…and if there were any changes I knew we should have a camera. This story is my first ever foray into film making.

What other creative outlets do you explore?

I’m a full time writer by profession. So I have also written a book of the journey with Rowan – the Horse Boy – to be published by Little Brown in the USA in April 2009 and in Europe, Australasia and Asia through different publishers throughout 2009.

Did you go to film school, or how did you learn the "craft" of filmmaking?

No – no training at all. But fortunately I chose as my director a vastly talented young director called Michel Scott who was trained at the University of Texas film school, and he assembled an equally talented crew – Justin Hennard on sound and Rita Sanders and Michelle Green (all young Austin film makers) to edit.

Any other insights you think might be interesting regarding your “life as a filmmaker…”

I’m intrigued by the process of story telling. I found, despite the huge differences in technique, that the same principles of structure applied. It was a challenge to learn to think visually, but a great one. We’re already rolling on the next doc now – I can see how this gets addictive.

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

The crazy notion that if I could get my autistic son to Mongolia and travel from shaman to shaman on horseback that somehow he’d be healed. Completely bananas, I know, but its really that simple. I had a feeling that there might be change – and if there was, we should film it.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences...

I do have some big influences – Roko Belic’s "Genghis Blues" was a masterpiece and also remains an inspiration. "The Great Dance," by Craig and Damon Foster – which follows the fortunes of three Bushman hunter gatherers in Botswana. Incredible. For narrative film I was blown away by "Pan’s Labyrinth" and its effortless synthesis of hard reality and magic that suspends one’s disbelief without effort. But lets face it, there are a ton of brilliant film makers out there and one is constantly being delighted and blown away.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?

Well we started with zero money and next to no experience. The money actually came from a book advance – but we had all bought our tickets to Mongolia and were willing to go into debt to make the journey, because of this irrational but totally gut feeling that the trip had to be done for Rowan. While there the challenges were immense – quite apart from the logistical ones of travelling horseback through remote wilderness with an incontinent, neurologically challenged, tantruming five year old, there were some dangers. I was terrified that Rowan might get sick (in fact both Kristin, my wife, and Michel, the director, did get giardia), of accidents with the horses (we had a couple), and so on. There was also the fear that we would not find the shamans, that they would turn out to be charlatans, might not be able or willing to help my son, or that Rowan would hate the trip and reject it all. You can pretty much name it, I was afraid of it. Even of Kristin – who hadn’t wanted to go on the journey originally – being pushed too far over her physical limit. And most of my fears did manifest themselves at one point or other. But then our hopes, our expectations were met – exceeded – in ways that we could not possibly have predicted…

How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Just good story telling, pure and simple. Telling a story truthfully and well. That is a task in and of itself.

What are your future projects?

The shamans in Mongolia all agreed that Rowan needed to have at least one good shamanic ritual every year until the age of nine. Given the changes that happened in Mongolia we are following their advice and filming as we go. This year we took Rowan to Namibia to be healed by the San Bushmen of Ju’Hoansi clan, in the remote Nyae Nyae area of the Kalahari. This coming year will be in Australasia and Nepal. Next year…who knows? We aren’t proselytizing for shamanism: we kept going with all our orthodox treatments too. But the traditional and the non traditional can compliment each other. Ultimately, the story is always about a family and how they come to terms with their situation. As long as Rowan’s story seems to lead us on, we’ll follow.

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3 Comments

  • Aida | January 17, 2012 8:12 PMReply

    Just finished watching "Horse Boy". I was in tears as Rowan had progressed. I have a nephew who is autistic. Although he never had tantrums, he never attended school because it is too slow for him. He learned how to read, write and do a lot of things on his own. He is super intelligent. He devours magazines and advanced computer books/magazines and doctor's books. It gets expensive but it's what he wants to do. Like both of you, we also worry about him as he gets older. We can't help ourselves to hope that one of us (his parents or uncles/aunts) will be around to make sure he is okay.
    Thank you for making such a wonderful documentary and good luck to you and your family.

  • m. jackie | February 2, 2011 12:31 AMReply

    loved the book, heard it on my mp3player thanks for recording it. PLEASE CONTINUE TO RECORD YOUR QUEST. not only is it inspiring and heart lifting but it has touched my life in ways beyond explaination.
    i am also interested in reading the books your wife, Kristin has written but have not been able to locate them.
    again thank you for your book. the universe has blessed us with a family to help us in our quest for enllightenment. your quest touches even those who do not have an autistic child.

  • shirley | October 15, 2010 4:50 AMReply

    loved your horse boy book. please write/film your next journeys with rowan. thanks, sp