MAY 23, 2013 –– Joe Peeler was 4 or 5 when he started coming to the Eastern Sierra with his father for early-summer fishing trips every Memorial Day weekend.
The pair stopped in Bishop to take in the sights and sounds (and smells) of Mule Days: the tall animals with the long ears and longer tails; men and women in cowboy hats and boots and spurs; a fine layer of dust and announcers’ echoes from the fairgrounds arena hovering overhead.
The parade and the cowboys and the camaraderie of the celebration would become a part of the father-son vacation for the next 10 years, until the Peelers turned their Memorial Day Mule Days sojourn into a full-fledged family vacation with RVs and grandparents, aunts and uncles.
So it only seemed natural to Joe Peeler that, when he became serious about making films as a student of the celebrated UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, he would turn his attention as a documentarian on a subject so close to his heart.
“It seemed like a perfect opportunity,” he said of the decision to make the “Mule Days” documentary.
Shot over the course of four years, beginning with the 39th annual celebration in 2008, the film is a true labor of love for Peeler and his crew. Entirely self-financed, the project meant finding, filming and ultimately befriending Mule Days attendees, contestants and characters.
In particular, “Mule Days” focuses on three individuals at pivotal points in their lives, according to a press release, which describes them thusly:
• Mike Toberer, a packer facing potentially devastating economic times, tries to pass on his century-old way of life to his son;
• Tucker Slender, a retired cowboy, creates a new life for himself as his friends fade away;
• And Dale Woodard, a chicken-loving rodeo clown, puts his life as an absent father in perspective.
“Intertwined with these stories are a thousand other glimpses of life within the rodeo arena and a kaleidoscope of characters that make the Bishop Mule Days Celebration what it is today,” the press release states.
Peeler and the Bishop Twin Theatre arranged for a premier of sorts during the 2012 celebration.
“It was overwhelmingly positive,” Peeler said of the reaction. “We had a great time and it seemed like everyone else had a great time.”
The free screenings and accompanying DVD sales also helped serve as a launchpad for fundraising efforts to help the filmmakers submit “Mule Days” to festivals and in general find it a larger audience.
This past January, the California Film Awards bestowed the documentary with the Diamond Trophy – an honor given to films “that transcend genre and style to tell uniquely Californian stories that would otherwise go untold on the international stage.”
The California Film Awards are held annually in San Diego, where films from all over the world compete in a festival that organizers say “represents the forefront of aesthetic, critical and entertainment standards in contemporary independent filmmaking and screenwriting.”
“The ‘Mule Days’ team couldn’t be more proud,” Peeler said at the time. “We aimed to show the world how amazing the people of Bishop Mule Days are, and that’s exactly what we did.”
At the time, he said the California Film Awards “are just the beginning. This movie might be set in California, but it has international appeal. It’s inspiring, beautiful and funny, and I think the charm of ‘Mule Days’ translates to audiences around the world.”
Since then, Peeler has attended the Sundance Film Festival with another short film and done SXSW in Austin as part of another project. He said gaining a “little bit of traction” with those other projects has been beneficial for “Mule Days.”
One of the ideas to surface as a result of new industry contacts is online distribution for the documentary.
The filmmakers are now hoping to raise enough funds through a Kickstarter campaign to make their film available via outlets such as Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu.
Mule Days attendees can help this week by stopping by the Souvenir Building, where Peeler and Co. will be selling DVDs as well as copies of the soundtrack (available on cassette or for digital download) and a book of large-format photos and interviews.
All proceeds will go to the Kickstarter campaign, which launches today under the official title, Mule Days Documentary World Domination Fund.
According to Peeler, “the best way to find us is to go to www.kickstarter.com  and search ‘Mule Days Documentary.’”
Prizes will be given in return for donations, based on the dollar amounts, and range from free downloads of the soundtrack and the full film for computer or tablet, to limited edition “Mule Days Documentary” T-shirts, to all mule-show General Admission passes for the 2014 Mule Days Celebration.
“And if some crazy person donates $1,000, our musical composers will write a song about them in the bluegrass style of the ‘Mule Days’ soundtrack,” Peeler said.
According to Peeler, it is his ultimate goal to share the story of Mule Days with as many people as possible, and eventually give back to the packing industry by donating 10 percent of all profits to the Backcountry Horsemen of California.
“Bishop’s community has been so good to us already, and we hope that this year we can return the favor. We’ve already submitted to a number of film festivals and we hope to continue submitting and hopefully screen at many others. All of this costs money, though, and this year we are trying to raise funds to push on with the movie, get the film seen and show the world how much excitement and humanity can be found in a celebration like Bishop Mule Days,” Peeler has said. “We hope that by getting ‘Mule Days: The Documentary’ out to these festivals, and perhaps TV stations as well, that we can get the word out about Mule Days and all of its charm and characters. I personally would love nothing more than to have people from around the world visit Mule Days years from now solely because they saw the movie. That would be amazing.”