Digital video has made independent filmmaking cheaper and easier than ever before. But while the format's flexibility and low cost have helped further democratize independent film, many subjects remain ill-served by its often shaky, sometimes headache-inducing visuals. A good example is horse racing, a lush, photogenic spectacle rendered infinitely less so by the digital video of the Hennegan brothers' otherwise winning documentary The First Saturday In May. Chronicling the excess and exquisite ceremony of the Kentucky Derby in shitty digital video is like releasing a coffee-table book of the Sistine Chapel photographed exclusively with cheap disposable cameras.
The First Saturday In May follows six trainers and their horses as they angle for a slot at the Kentucky Derby. The contenders include a fast-talking, archetypal New York character whose working-class patter defies the popular notion of horse racing as the realm of kings and bluebloods, and the trainer of Barbaro, the legendary horse that raced into history and tragedy. Given Barbaro's spectacular, widely documented rise and fall, the outcome of the big race is never in question, but May is more concerned with savoring small moments of laconic humor and gentle humanity than the ultimate outcome of the race.
May uses the quirks and well-worn traditions of horse racing as a vehicle to quietly explore idiosyncrasies of the human condition. The Hennegans present a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, from a soft-spoken veteran horse trainer with multiple sclerosis who toils proudly for the Dubai royal family to a wheelchair-bound perfectionist with a gaggle of precocious sons for whom a Derby win would mean not just fame and fortune, but also kick-ass new skateboards. May takes its sweet time getting to the big day, but that eventually works in its favor, since the filmmakers are ultimately more concerned with the journey than the destination. In the Hennegans' affable, engaging love letter to everything equine and tradition-bound, getting there is way more than half the fun.