Bikers For Horses: A Documentary from Bosnia

By Will Grant

On the granite hills over looking Livno, Bosnia, a small band of wild horses ekes out a living in a harsh climate. The winters are punishing and the alpine grass is sparse, but the biggest threat to the horses is that they live in a country where human rights issues, economic slack, and the cultural vestiges of war make life hard for a wild horse.

The 250 or so descendants of former work horses have lived in these hills since they were replaced by tractors about the end of World War II. Life has not been easy for them. Over the years locals have shot them for amusement, killed them for dog food, stole them or forced some back into domestication.

The wild horses of Livno have an unlikely ally: A biker gang of war veterans called the Wolves. Who smoke a lot of cigarettes, spend most nights in a bar, and look years older than they actually are. They are the subject of a new film, called Wild, by Shawn Convey, 39, a Chicago-based filmmaker, who most recently produced a film called DMT—a vivid documentary on dance movement therapy in Calcutta, India.

Convey is funding the Wild project through Kickstarter, and he has only a few days to achieve the funding goal of $24,000 to complete the film, which will include footage taken during several past visits to Livno. DMT was also funded through a Kickstarter project.

In 2009, Convey quit his job as a commercial marketing photographer in New York City and set his sights on more rewarding work. He sold everything he had and moved to Bosnia. He’d been to Croatia before but never Bosnia. From Bosnia he figured he’d make his way through the Balkans to find a story worth telling. He found it in the Wolves.

What is the fascination? “War-hardened men softened by horses,” says Shawn Convey. “That’s the story.”

Convey’s documentary is about the bikers, the horses, and the men’s struggle for personal redemption. It’s a juxtaposition of marginalized war veterans and at-risk wild horses.

Thanks to the Wolves, as well as other activists, there are now laws on the books protecting the animals. It’s not clear who owns the horses—or who’s responsible for managing them—though they can no longer be harassed or shot or stolen. The men are working to save the horses. But the horses are saving the men.

“There’s no such thing as PTSD in Bosnia,” Convey says. “But these guys have PTSD. Yes, they’re helping the horses, but the horses are helping them more. The old timers are starting to realize that they need the horses more than the horses need them.”

In 2009, Convey met the starting point for his story: Lija, the head of the Wolves. Lija is very clearly the leader of the men—their organizer, figurehead, and focal point. Lija is a natural-born leader, a man among men, and so on. Because Lija brought Convey into the Wolves’ circle, Convey feels that even if he fell out of favor with some of the men, they would say nothing because Lija has vouched for him.

The film is a story about people. And as is often the case with investigating personal stories, one of the hardest parts of reporting the story is gaining unfettered access to the people. Lija allows Convey that privilege, and to a degree, Lija makes the film possible.

When Convey met Lija, the hardened war vet was hired as a driver. Filmmaker Convey was just a tourist, and Lija took him up the mountain to see the horses. He also told Convey a little about what he and his gang of bikers were doing to keep the horses wild.

The former Croatian fighter tried to explain his fascination with the animals. “I’d lived there long enough to know that human rights was such an issue and nationalism was so big that people trying to save horses is very uncommon,” Convey says. “The more I look into it, the better the story gets. Every time I think I got it figured out, I find another piece to the puzzle.”

Convey wants to finish filming in Bosnia this summer, by the end of August or so. Lija has assumed a political role in the small town of Livno, and his separation from the Wolves leaves the gang an uncertain future. Not to mention the horses’ future, as well.

Convey’s film is also in doubt. The filmmaker and photographer has not had a steady job since he quit commercial photography six years ago.

“A lot of people’s reaction is: that’s brave,” Convey says. “But it’s not. It’s easy to go after what you want. I think it’s brave to keep doing a job you hate, where you’re not happy.”

To finish his film, Convey needs financial support. His Kickstarted project, which has less than a month to raise $24,000, is, not surprisingly, the most urgent need. His film has garnered positive interest from producers, broadcasters and other industry representatives in both the US and Europe, but nearly all of that is contingent upon finishing the film. For Convey, the next six months are crucial.

Wild could be the Launchpad for his career. He thinks it will be. He’s operating on a thin budget, but he’s dialed in on a complex, emotional story that looks to have a broad appeal.

“There’s war vets, bikers, nature, horses, politics,” he says. “You’d have to be a pretty boring person not to like it.”

Visit Convey’s Kickstarter project HERE.

Watch the trailer to Wild HERE.

All images © Shawn Convey 2012.

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