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Along for the Ride


Amanda Micheli For the Ride of It: On a whim, with no budget, Harvard undergraduate Amanda Micheli filmed the personal documentary 'Just for the Ride,' which has since aired on POV and screened at several festivals.

Chris Edwards

In her film 'Just for the Ride,' Amanda Micheli experiences the rough-and-tumble world of cowgirls and women's rodeo

By Isabel Sadurni

Combining a love of kick-ass heroines and horses, Amanda Micheli bucked commercial convention and produced, directed, shot and edited a personal documentary that instantly put her on the moviemaking map. Her first film, Just for the Ride, is an hour-long profile of American rodeo cowgirls. It has already roped in a Student Academy Award and a national broadcast on the PBS series POV, giving her career a bronc-stompin' kick start.

Amanda's work with Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) and Robb Moss (The Tourist, River Dogs) in Harvard's undergraduate documentary department was highly influential in the development of her bold approach. In Just for the Ride, portraits of legendary rodeo cowgirls Fern Sawyer and Jan Youren are painted with a kind of courage that wrestles the image of the West away from the Marlboro man. Not surprisingly, her next film portrays the complexity of the feminine through the shapely strength of Hollywood stuntwomen.

Metropolitan: How did you choose documentary film as a medium?

Micheli: I got started in film through still photography. And I found that I enjoyed reacting to stuff rather than creating a preconceived reality. Not that working with a camera is never proactive--you're framing things all the time. In school, I was taught to use the camera as an authoring tool. I didn't have a class in lighting and a class in camera and a class in sound. It was all me making it happen, which may not be very realistic, but it's been a very valuable beginning.

Metropolitan: And Just for the Ride came out of a project as a Harvard undergraduate?

Micheli: I had an assignment to film "the street" and had two weeks to do it. A friend of mine had brought me a copy of Sidesaddle, which is the monthly magazine for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. That's where I saw the picture of Fern [Sawyer], and I said, 'I have to meet this woman.' So I borrowed a car and got someone to do sound. A friend of mine worked for Errol Morris, so I got all his re-cans for ridiculously cheap and took off. It all started on a whim. I never made a budget. That ended as a 20-minute piece that grew into Just for the Ride, which has since aired on POV and screened in several festivals. My next project is about female stuntwomen.

Metropolitan: How did you find that idea--or did it find you?

Micheli: At a screening at the IFFM [Independent Film Financing Market in New York], these two producers approached me about making this documentary about stuntwomen. I would be director/producer. It's this whole different approach, because I am used to working by myself, so I need to learn how to take the control-freak thing and spread it out. It's like getting married again, like getting vertigo--looking over the cliff--but, of course, I'm gonna jump. We've decided to make a demo. But in the meantime, there are screenings of Just for the Ride and other work as a D.P. and editor to keep me moving.

Metropolitan: Did you have any team at all as you were shooting Just for the Ride, or was it really just you?

Micheli: It was really just me. Any time I had to shoot, I would recruit someone to do sound. But I wasn't paying anybody, and usually it was a friend of a friend that wanted to get into film and then the weekend after working with me they would decide it was not what they wanted.

Metropolitan: Well, it's hard work.

Micheli: Yeah, and I had people chasing herds of cattle and getting hit by bulls. It wasn't the best apprenticeship maybe for the thinner-skinned sound people.

Metropolitan: In your film, you lay down an abbreviated history of women in rodeo and make it clear that women have been bronc riding in competition since the early part of the century, as documented by the Cowgirl's Hall of Fame. Did the existence of women's rodeo come as a surprise to anyone?

Micheli: It's a pocket of sportswomen most people didn't know existed. It's still a very small network. Like many marginalized women's sports, rodeo bronc riding is driven by the pure sweat of grassroots enthusiasm. To her credit, Jan [Youren] has almost single-handedly recruited all the women who compete in rough-stock [bronc riding and bull riding].

Metropolitan: And the reaction's been great, right? You won a Student Academy Award.

Micheli: I got some negative reactions from animal-rights activists. But I'll tell ya, unridable horses won't survive long on a work ranch, so it's easily argued that you're prolonging untamable horses' lives by giving them a career in rough stock. Also, the Men's Pro Rodeo association had a problem with the production value of the film. It's a very home-baked film and didn't fit their idea of how rodeo should be represented. They wanted a big production. But the best reaction I've gotten has been from middle-aged women from small-town America. The American Legion Auxiliary, which is the wives of American veterans--we're talking very mainstream, conservative, little old blue-haired ladies--they gave me an award. It's called the Crystal Heart Award, and it's for promoting positive family images of women. Different groups see very different things in the film, and these women saw Jan as a women with eight kids doing what she loved to do. I was really amazed by the broad appeal it has.

Metropolitan: Have people spotlighted this film as feminist?

Micheli: It is political on certain levels. Gay and lesbian festivals went nuts over it, but you know, there's something refreshing about the fact that the women rodeo stars I encountered don't think of themselves as feminists. They take a much more organic approach--it's more "This is what I do, this is what my dad did, this is what I do to have a good time and I don't analyze it." My work is more about my wanting to see real women out there instead of these plastic women that I'm constantly offered in the media and can't relate to. And there's a complexity to the women in Just for the Ride that I find lacking in the general spectrum of women represented today. These women are strong and tough and cool, but there are certain aspects of their lifestyle I find hard to accept.

Metropolitan: Another point you emphasize is the enormous discrepancy between what women champions earn versus what male champions earn in bronc-riding competitions. Is it encouraging that in other sports the economy is starting to include women with more equality?

Micheli: As far as I'm concerned, the Women's NBA has completely changed the face of women's sports. [Cheryl Swoops was the first woman to be sponsored by Nike.] For people to be able to turn on the television and see women getting paid to play sports is--I can't even imagine how different my life would be if I had seen that as a little kid. Hopefully, the support for women's sports will reach into a broad range of careers. It really comes down to sponsorship and broadcast money to fund the teams. And exposure.

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From the July 27-Aug. 9, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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