For two years, documentary filmmakers Bill Yahraus and Robin Rosenthal charted the journey of one Mexican-American horsewomen team on its way to the National Charro Championships.
The fact that neither knew anything about the sport or the culture surrounding the escaramuzas charras — a choreographed performance involving horses and background music — when they began filming did not daunt them, according to Yahraus, who teaches film production at USC.
“We make films about things that we are interested in, but we don’t understand,” Yahraus said. “[But] by the end of the film you’ll know a lot about it and a lot about the people who do it because it gets personal.”
Escaramuza: Riding From the Heart follows the Riverside County-based team Las Azaleas, which is striving to do what no other American team has done: get to the congressional national team as they represent the U.S. at the National Charro Championships.
“No American team has [ever] made it to the top 18, so that’s their goal,” Yahraus said. “That’s what we were following them trying to do. It is a lot like getting to the Super Bowl for Mexican sport.”
Rooted in the cattle culture of colonial Mexico, the escaramuzas charras create a kind of horse ballet by performing intricate synchronized patterns at full gallop.
“These are eight girls knocking themselves out,” Yahraus said. “It’s astounding. They do it either in charra suits or adelita dresses and they do it side saddle.”
For the riders, though, Escaramuza is not just about the riding. It’s about carrying on a tradition.
“There’s a subculture called La Charreria, which is a Mexican subculture that goes back generations and generations. It has to do with the way they worked on the farms and the ranches with the horses,” Yahraus said. “They took these aspects of working with horses into various things that happen in the Mexican rodeo.”
Yahraus and Rosenthal’s film shows not only the competitive side of the sport, but also the personal side of the female competitors, Yahraus said.
“These women, they’re bound together by charreria. It’s something they grow up with in this community,” Yahraus said. “The success in the team really keeps them together. They’re partners and it’s their dedication to making that happen which drives this.”
Escaramuza marks Yahraus and Rosenthal’s third documentary film together. Despite their experience with filmmaking, the duo still had challenges to overcome. For Escaramuza, this involved convincing the subjects to continue their daily routines in the presence of a video camera.
“At a certain point you have to convince them you’re not the local news,” Yahraus said. “No matter how much you say, ‘We’re going to stick with you for a season,’ and with them that meant they practiced Tuesdays and Thursdays and a lot of family events which eventually we were invited to, then the competitions around the state. Nobody believes we’re going to stick around at first.”
For Yahraus and Rosenthal, time was the key to building trust with their subjects.
“You just stay and you stay, and you do no harm and you become friends,” Yahraus said. “When we finally came to a practice and no one was wearing makeup we thought, ‘OK that’s good’ and then when people started talking like themselves, we knew we’d gotten beyond the stage where the subject is trying to give you what they think you want.”
The film, which is about friendship, tradition and the art of the sport, also has a soft political side to it, according to Yahraus.
“When I make a film it [deals with] dispelling preconceptions people might have coming to the film,” Yahraus said. “[The Charro riders] are people that were here long before we were, and they’re wonderful, amazingly dedicated, hardworking and [lovely.] I want that to come across.”
For Rosenthal and Yahraus, the most important thing is finding a subject that is interesting to them, a value that extends to Escaramuza.
“There’s nothing like making films about things that you like, and people you want to be friends with,” Yahraus said. “These people feel like they’re part of this big Mexican-American family … and we will be active with them forever. That’s the beauty of making the film to me.”
For Yahraus and Rosenthal, wrapping up the film was not difficult; the duo knew they would see the team again soon.
“There’s no goodbye,” Yahraus said. “It just takes a different form maybe, but we know they’ll be in our lives forever now.”
USC will present a special screening of Escaramuza: Riding From the Heart on Sunday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. in The Ray Stark Family Theatre.