It’s said dog is man’s best friend, but Edmonton’s resident filmmaker anthropologist Niobe Thompson has other ideas.
For the past three years, the Cambridge-educated adventurer and his film crew redlined the globe, building a case that it is actually to mighty horses humanity owes its greatest interspecies debt, even though at roughly 6,000 years they’re late into the domestication game compared to our longtime familiars, cats and dogs.
“My fascination is with human history,” Thompson said over lunch. “All of the incredible things we don’t know because we weren’t writing them down yet. When I began to think more carefully about horses, it was natural to ask the question, ‘How did our closest animal companion change the human story?’
“When I talked to population geneticists, I was amazed by how massive and sudden the impact of horse culture was on the ancient world. Even though I love horses and love to ride them, I really geeked out on that science, learning how the population of Europe today really was the result of a horse invasion that happened in the Bronze Era.”
The miniseries goes a lot farther back than that, and the result of its exhaustive scientific quest through 11 countries, backed by gorgeous footage and overall narrative magnificence, is Thompson’s latest three-part epic, Equus: Story of the Horse.
It’s full of cutting-edge biology, horse psychology and anthropology, historical recreations (including building an entire village), and beautiful animation of one of the horse’s earliest ancestors from 40 million years ago, scampering up a tree on little claws.
“I knew all the best fossils were in Germany,” said Thompson. “There’s a man there named Martin Fischer, one of the world’s leading animal locomotion experts. He said if you bring your team of animators here to work with my team of scientific animators, we can do something.
“For the first time in my career I’m happy with our animation,” he laughed.
That exciting CGI sequence is just one of dozens of unforgettable scenes over three hours, including recreations of ancient warfare; racing with Bedouins in Saudi Arabia; a slow-motion camera used to break down the mechanics of a Kentucky racehorse; and Thompson milking a horse in Kazakhstan — a foal is involved to trick the mother into lactating — with hilariously meagre results.
Equus’ world première is the season-opener for CBC’s The Nature of Things at 8 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 23, but Thompson is presenting a sneak peek of two of its episodes at 7 p.m. Monday in the Winspear Centre.
The evening is hosted by charming author Todd Babiak to help underline the series’ Edmonton connections — including the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Pro Coro Canada.
The series was also shot by Edmonton’s Daron Donahue, aAron Munson and expat Darren Fung, returning to make another glorious symphonic score. The filmmaker also relishes the contribution of principal editors Brenda Terning, Scott Parker and Krystal Moss.
Oh, and a pair of local horses will be greeters outside the event Monday night — including a miniature one.
Thompson said, “There are more horses in Edmonton per capita than any other city in Canada.” Indeed, 50 per cent of the nation’s horses are found in Alberta — so that local angle isn’t invented, either.
That said, Equus is a global story. For example, the filmmaker noted, “If you want horse stunts you go to Kazakhstan. It’s circus performers who spend most of their time on film shoots.”
Many of the riders in the series depicting ancient cultures have already appeared in film and TV, including as Dothraki warriors on Game of Thrones. Thompson discovered them and their 1,000-horse herd while in search of Mongol costumes made for a shelved Sergei Bodrov film about Genghis Khan.
Exploring the role of horses in war — “Really, we bred horses bigger for war,” he said — Thompson had a chariot built in England to test their effectiveness in a battlefield without roads. But he also looks at horseback games, including Kyz kuu — a Kazakh kiss-capturing chase — and back in Alberta, Indian Relay, where moccasin-wearing players leap onto a series of horses, riding bareback.
The demonstrations of horses recognizing each other’s emotions — and ours — is also fascinating stuff. For example, horses have 17 facial expressions — three more than chimpanzees.
But the most compelling sequence about horse psychology takes us down the road from Ian Tyson’s ranch in southern Alberta to “extreme cowboy” Jimmy Anderson — a bit of a misnomer in the sense that instead of breaking pre-saddle horses, he “starts” them, peacefully.
With gentle contact, repeatedly jumping up near the newly-accepted saddle, and even using the calming presence of another horse, Anderson is up and riding Shiver for the first time in the horse’s life in a matter of hours. The scene, edited beautifully, is emotional — and in a complicated way. “I love the shot of where Shiver lays his head on the rump of Maverick,” says Thompson. “Jimmy is just a magician.”
He muses about these relationships. “It’s always been a negotiated arrangement. The horses don’t need us.
“This animal is typically five times larger than a human. We’re so weak and slow and small compared to a horse. What the horse gives us is extraordinary. We built the world on horsepower — we still talk about horsepower.”
Whether or not you already know horses have almost 360-degree vision, lips sensitive like human hands and that each of their legs ends in a single toe, the amount of information in Equus is staggering.
Thompson, its writer, director and producer, was raised in part in the northern Alberta Cree community of Wabasca-Desmarais, 325 kilometres north of Edmonton. There, his family owned a retired quarter horse named Fancy who used to cut calves out of herds. While they had her, she was alone — which Thompson regrets after his recent research.
“It’s like solitary confinement. If I could go back in time I would have put my horse with other horses. You can’t take horses away from horses. Just like humans, they need to be together.
“Thankfully,” he smiles, “my uncle who has horses took her and she had another great 10 years.”
The filmmaker notes, “Now I’m a city dweller.”
He pauses, looks down, and smiles. “But I’m sure I have horse shit on my boots right now …”
Equus: Story of the Horse advance screening
Where: Winspear Centre, 4 Sir Winston Churchill Square
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $15, $12 students and seniors at Winspear Box Office
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