This intimate and affecting docu-drama from director Chloe Zhao follows rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who is determined to get back in the saddle following a severe cranial injury.

Born to the rugged American heartland of South Dakota, cowboy and local rodeo rider Brady Jandreau was content with his simple life, surrounded by horses and good friends. But when he falls from a bucking horse in a rodeo, he suffers a serious skull fracture, requiring surgery and a metal plate in his head.

Longing to get back in the saddle, his doctors warn him of the risks; although it’s the only place he finds true joy.

It’s almost impossible to tell where Jandreau’s real story begins and where fiction takes over in Chloe Zhao’s award-winning docu-drama, The Rider, which follows Jandreau’s daily life following his accident.

“It is very documentary-esque,” agrees Zhao, “but we strictly followed a 55-page script. The story was written specifically about Brady and the people in his life, so it has a real authenticity.”

Zhao first met Jandreau while filming Songs My Brothers Taught Me on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2014. “But when he got hurt badly and was back riding and breaking horses six weeks later, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell,” says Zhao when STACK met with her and Jandreau in Toronto last year.

“I was taking in horses that had never even been worked with before,” admits the softly spoken Jandreau.

“He was putting his life at risk every day in order to maintain his identity and purpose. That felt like a very strong story to me,” adds Zhao.

The petite Asian director and the cowboy-hatted, spur-booted Jandreau charmed festival-goers; a striking duo among red carpet tuxedoed perennials like George Clooney and Matt Damon.

There’s a simplicity and honesty about The Rider – and about Jandreau himself – which makes his story compelling, although, for the purposes of the film, Zhao has changed his name from Jandreau to Blackburn, extending the same courtesy to other family members featured in the film.

Jandreau hopes the cowboy life will remain relevant for future generations. “I see a lot of people from my part of the world who have never experienced anything but the cowboy life and want to carry on the tradition, although there’s just as many other folk who were raised cowboy but want nothing to do with it anymore.”

Today, his own passion comes at a price, as he demonstrates by removing his hat and inviting us to examine the angry red scars beneath his hair.

“I was in a coma for five days and the doctors didn’t think I would ever walk or talk again,” he says, shyly admitting the fall took place on April Fools Day 2016.

His remarkable recovery surprised his doctors, who warned him not to ride a horse for at least six months or lift anything heavier than 10lbs. “But I was back on my horse, Gus, after two weeks and the saddle weighs 50lbs,” admits Jandreau, who discharged himself early from hospital. “It was too emotional for me, especially since one of my best friends had also fallen from a horse and was not doing as well.

“When a horse is sick or hurt, they’re put down but, as a human, we do everything to stay alive. That really made me think.”

A month after returning home, he was broke, and began breaking horses again – unlike his movie alter ego who seeks work in a grocery store.

“I’m sure a lot of people thought I was crazy when my skull was still healing and a fall could have easily taken my life. But I couldn’t work in a store or anything like that. All I’ve ever known is horses or ranching, moving livestock around.”

“He even complained about filming this movie,” laughs Zhao, acknowledging Jandreau’s clear discomfort at the festival crowds. “He just wants to be off on his horse.”

“Horses have always been my friends,” he says. “Even when I was young and my parents were fighting, I would just go off on my horse and all my stress would go away.”

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