Every year, between the months of October and May, sugar cane farmers near the shores of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee light their fields on fire in order to burn away unwanted foliage and detritus before the sugar cane harvest begins.
Filmmaker Patrick Bresnan’s haunting, award-winning short “The Rabbit Hunt,” which debuted exclusively on Topic.com on November 2, documents this spectacle, including the locals who hunt the hundreds of rabbits that come fleeing out of the burning bush. Bresnan’s film is the result of years of effort: the New York native has been traveling to Pahokee for over a decade, where he has built close relationships with many in the community, like Freddie, a legendary rabbit hunter who was hit by a truck in the fields when he was a child. (In addition to twisted or broken ankles, rabbit hunters can be burned by fire, hit by moving vehicles like tractors, harvesters, and trucks, or attacked by the alligators who live in the canals that ring some of the sugar cane fields.)
Though rabbit hunting in and around Pahokee is as much, if not more, about putting food on the table than recreation, the young hunters take pride in the athleticism the sport demands; a number of professional football players grew up the area, including Janoris Jenkins of the New York Giants. “Your manliness or aptitude to be a great athlete is defined by your prowess in the rabbit fields,” says Bresnan. “Some people, like Freddie, just go right into the fucking fire. (Bresnan adds that a “really good day” for Freddie, who is now around 40 years of age, yields around 70 rabbits, which can sell for around $5 a piece.)
“Visually it’s quite remarkable,” says Bresnan, who began his career as a still photographer. “You know on a movie set how they have various filters for light? So certain types of smoke will do different things with the light and create these kind of images like we’re walking in the clouds or we’ve entered this parallel universe. And, aesthetically, there’s just this heroicism and masculinity…young people running into a burning field and risking their lives for five or ten or fifty dollars. Rabbit hunting is a way for young men to make a living legitimately — the same way a suburban kid might have a paper route, these kids know that if you see that cloud coming out of the air by school you jump on your bike and you go right for it.”