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‘Ascension’ to open at Lone Star Film Festival

Some stories just have to be told.

Rusty Leaver felt that when he met Ascencion Banuelos.

“I noticed him 25 years ago, and when I first laid eyes on him, suddenly he was credible,” Leaver said. “How did he break through? What led to him being first?”

Leaver, a local film director, tells that story in his documentary, Ascencion. It’s world premiere will be held Nov. 12 at 1:30 p.m. at the Four Day Weekend Theater, just off Sundance Square as part of the Lone Star Film Festival.

Ascencion tells the story of Mexican-American horse trainer Banuelos, detailing his sacrifice and perseverance on the road to becoming the first Mexican-American to be inducted into the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame.

The movie’s synopsis in the news release reads:

“The union of horse and man create a third and greater force. This film is about one such man … In the winter of 1969, 13-year-old Ascencion Banuelos leaves his 13 siblings and his home in Lobatos, Mexico, risking his young life to cross the river into the U.S., where he believes all things are possible.

“Against all odds and defying the limitations placed on Mexicans, Ascencion will become one of the greatest horsemen of his time, gaining world renown as a champion cutting horse competitor, earning millions and becoming the first Mexican-American to be inducted into the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame.

“This story of guts and grit captures the triumph of one man who broke through racial and economic barriers to set a new precedent in the competitive cutting horse world.”

After the screening, Banuelos and Leaver, local luminaries Steve Murrin and State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., will take part in a question and answer session. Mariachi bands and charro horsemen will ramp up festivities for film-goers before the screening.

Leaver himself has a long connection to the ranching and livestock world. For 40 years, he and his wife, Diane, owned, operated and preserved much of the land of Deep Hollow Ranch, known as America’s oldest cattle ranch and located on the tip of Long Island in Montauk, New York. He began his entertainment career in 1990, producing the first in a series of 10 summer concerts. In 2011, the Leavers bought land in Weatherford and established Rock Creek Ranch. The ranch is a working horse and cattle operation and serves as headquarters for Rock Creek Productions.

The documentary ventures into sometimes-controversial territory.

“It’s got some layers. It approaches the subject of Mexican immigration in a different fashion,” Leaver said. “It was interesting to take the journey, following him swimming across the river as a 13-year-old boy to his success in the cutting horse industry.”

Leaver said he is working on wide distribution of the film after the festival.

“The festival is the gateway of distribution,” he said.

Leaver said that he sat down with Banuelos in 2015 to prepare to make the film.

“I invited him over and said I wanted to learn more about his history and make a film,” he said. “The whole [national] discussion about immigration was at a high point, and I wanted to tell this story. It was nothing political. It is just a great story.”

Leaver said that it was not his intention to deliver a message of any kind but that Banuelos’ story does so nonetheless.

“We made every attempt not to be calculating with our message. I don’t like a film that clubs me over the head about how you should feel or think,” Leaver said. “But when he entered this cutting horse world, he leveraged his personality to gain support wherever he went. When they recognized his spirit and talent, they were the first ones to say ‘Giddy up.’

“Now everybody knows Ascencion, and it allowed him to do something never done before, open doors and break down barriers.

“It’s not a film that will alienate you,” he said. “Everybody likes a story about human spirit.”

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