Movie a Day Blog has to give full disclosure: Melissa Palmer worked as my assistant for a period in the late 1990s, and she was a wonderful employee: smart, efficient and personable. Now it turns out she’s a talented documentarian based on the screening I saw of her first film, D’ARTAGNAN IS THE CHAMPION (2014).
Part of the new movement of personal documentaries. Palmer tells the story of her taking up horseback riding, getting to know the family who ran the stables where she took her lessons, and falling in love with a rescue horse who became a dressage champion and evolved from Daddy O’ to D’artagnan.
What makes the documentary work, on both a humorous and animal welfare level, is the quirky and self-effacing narration by Palmer, who spent almost a decade shooting, cutting and finishing D’ARTAGNAN.
The horse had a good backstory: it had been bred and raised by a group of anachronistic black cowboys who lived in the middle of urban Atlanta, many of them serving as buggy drivers for the downtown tourist trade. But they have an entire ethos and society built on comradeship and horses, a black male community that happens to wear Stetsons and brag on themselves.
Palmer’s openness and lack of Hollywood arrogance gains her access to one group after another that might have been wary of a more professional filmmaker. She traces the horse’s journey to the point of his rescue by two women, one of whom becomes Daddy O’s new owner and rechristens him with the name of the most famous of Alexandre Dumas’ famed Musketeers.
Her daughter becomes the horse’s new trainer, and his equine intelligence and bold spirit make D’Artagnan into the unlikeliest of dressage mounts. The path taken in relating this story is meandering and circuitous, but with Palmer’s unbridled enthusiasm and affection, it never becomes a tiresome one.
Coming in at only 72 minutes, which still feels long (I could have done with a little less of a highly aggressive and portly pig), Palmer’s film has exceeded the DIY aesthetic of the personal documentary. She has a good subject, a strong supporting cast and a funny story to recount.
D’ARTAGNAN may not win big awards at festivals or even play at major film festivals, but that doesn’t matter so much anymore because Palmer has her own self-distribution strategy that has worked for other indie filmmakers of both narrative and non-fiction films.
It’s a new world with the democratization of filmmaking equipment and online tutorials in every aspect of moviemaking. Palmer studied her craft and knew what she was doing, however fumbling and unprepared she pretends to be.
I enjoyed D’ARTAGNAN more because I knew the person who made it, but I believe I would have admired it even had I not known Melissa. Friendship doesn’t guarantee that your friends like your movies, as I know from long experience, but it helps. D’ARTAGNAN didn’t need the help.