Pure Grit: Director Kim Bartley on documenting Native American bareback rider Sharmaine Weed

After discovering Native American bareback horse rider Sharmaine Weed on Facebook, documentarian Kim Bartley (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) spent three years travelling backwards and forwards between her home in Ireland and Wyoming’s Wind River reservation to film Pure Grit. With minimal funding, Bartley shot the whole thing virtually single-handed, following Sharmaine through the highs and lows of her relationship with city girl Savannah, the challenges of becoming a professional racer and the difficulties faced by her traditional family.

The result is a compelling documentary that weaves those three years into a narrative of hope and determination against the odds. Pure Grit won the Best Irish Feature Documentary award at this year’s Galway Film Festival, and will make its US premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival on October 24th. I spoke to Bartley about the challenges of making such an intimate yet expansive film, and why authenticity and honesty are are the core of everything she does.

How did you come to this story and what made you want to bring it to an audience?

I was filming on another documentary and came across Indian relay racing for the first time. It was spectacular, thrilling and a joy to film, but all the riders were male. I started asking around about any female riders and was told that a small select group of women compete every year on the flat race and that they were also beginning to start women’s relay racing teams. So I started following some of them on Facebook and came across Sharmaine.

How did you find Sharmaine and her family, and did you instinctively know they would be compelling subjects?

When I saw Sharmaine‘s profile on Facebook she jumped off the screen. We started messaging and she had lots to say and seemed very open to the idea of meeting and perhaps filming. I knew instinctively after our first phone call that she would be a fantastic subject for a documentary. At that point I had no idea of her past but I decided to take a chance and make my way to Wyoming without any funding or anything in place just to meet her. My gut was telling me to take the chance. 

As soon as we met, the chemistry was right and I spent four days there with Colm [O’Meara] my partner and the film’s sound recordist. On the very first day Sharmaine started telling me about being a survivor of sexual abuse and how she really wanted to tell that story. As a 14-year-old she stood up in court because she wanted to speak out despite her family not believing her, so it was clearly something she felt very strongly about. When I met her she was also  in the early stages of her relationship with Savannah [Martinez], who we loved’ she has a very different personality and is a total contrast to Sharmaine. 

Sharmaine‘s older brother Brendan also met with us and told us that a number of people had approached Sharmaine after races asking if they could film with her, but he hadn’t agreed to it. On our first night, he invited us to go hunting at 4 am and, after spending the day together, he decided that he’d be happy for us to film with his sister, the family and the relay team he manages. 

Sharmaine’s entire family welcomed us in and everyone in the family was a compelling character in their own way: the older brother who very much plays the role of the head of the family in what is a very patriarchal society; Sharmaine’s mom who was reluctant at first to be on camera but warmed up after a number of visits; Sharmaine’s sister Charity who had her own incredible story of overcoming a terrifying horse racing accident; Charity’s little daughter Kiara who was a joy and grew up in front of our eyes over the three years that we filmed and always provides a counterbalance to some of the more difficult moments in the film. Finally there was Kashe, Sharmaine‘s younger brother who also welcomed us in and whose death three years later was desperately sad and affecting.

Kim Barley and Colm O’Meara film Sharmaine on horseback (Photographer: Jeb Schenk)

What was it like working with the family for so long; how did you build trust but maintain boundaries?

We travelled to the reservation from Ireland seven times including that first four day trip when I was just on a recce; although almost everything I shot in those first four days made it into the final film! The following six trips were usually a week long, sometimes two during racing season as we would hit the road with the family to Idaho or wherever they were racing. We always stayed off the reservation a 15 minute drive away in Lander where there was a simple motel; we couldn’t afford the rooms at the casino on the reservation! So we’d stay in the town and then spend all day and most of the evening with Sharmaine and her family, who started treating us like family. On one or two occasions we didn’t go up to the reservation but simply travelled to Denver where Sharmaine had moved with Savannah, and Denver became a secondary character in the story. 

In terms of building trust and asking people to be as open as everyone was in this doc, I think that’s just down to chemistry and being extremely open and honest with people from the get go. I always explain that if anyone changes their mind about something they said or did on camera that I won’t use it, and that’s final. We had discussions along the way about certain scenes, like when Sharmaine ends up in court. It’s a collaboration so at every stage everyone involved was part of the conversation.

How did you stay motivated through the long process of making the film, and what support did you receive?

The film received support from Screen Ireland which allowed us to keep going for the first year or so; after that we didn’t manage to get any other funding so we scraped and borrowed and eventually got gap funding to finish the film. It was very tough and the trip to Wyoming from Ireland was so long and expensive that we weren’t in a position to just hop on a plane anytime something happened in Sharmaine‘s life. That was frustrating as she would call me and tell me about things going on, be it in racing or in her relationship with Savannah, and I knew that I couldn’t afford to go back for a few months. I’ve always done projects that are filmed over time so I have no issue staying motivated, but I do get frustrated! Rachel Lysaght, the endlessly patient producer, spent many hours listening to my rants and helping me see the wood for the trees.

L-R; Kim Barley, Kiara Tillman, Marilyn Tillman, Charity Tillman, Sharmaine Weed, Colm O’Meara (Photographer: Jeb Schenk)

What are the challenges of documenting a cloistered and traditional way of life such as Sharmaine’s; how do you ensure you make the film compelling while staying authentic, and how do you prevent yourself from influencing events?

In terms of filming life on the reservation, there were times when people asked us to stop filming during traditional ceremonies. We weren’t allowed to film inside a sweat or a peyote meeting or anything like that, and we never had any issue with that at all. We always asked for permission from anyone around us when we were away from the family home at powwows or races or on other parts of the reservation. 

We were lucky to get Taylor Sheridan the writer and director on board as exec producer early on; I had seen the movie Wind River and thought he would be a good fit as they clearly navigated rights and permissions to film on the same reservation that Sharmaine is from and the movie tackled similar issues. Taylor got his people  Daryl Begay and Elizabeth Bell on board as exec producers; they had great contacts and helped us navigate permissions and agreements with the Arapahoe and Shoshone tribal councils.

You ask how you prevent yourself from influencing events – I’m not sure you can! Once you are there you become part of the story to some extent. I would never ask someone to do something this way or that way for the doc, I just follow the decisions they make, but when you have conversations or someone asks you for advice obviously what you say will influence that person. But any advice I gave or conversations I had were personal; I would never suggest something for the sake of the documentary in the hope of making something more dramatic.

Making the film compelling for an audience is down to finding the right people and the right story, because it’s a documentary and all you have to work with are the people and story that you’re filming. Of course, the music and the pacing have a huge part to play and I think that Paul Mullen, the editor I work with, has an extraordinary sense of pace. It was difficult trying to structure everything into a story that would make sense when I felt there were gaps from times that I wasn’t able to be over there filming, but I think we managed it. 

How did you approach editing the extensive footage into a coherent feature narrative?

In terms of the edit, the narrative bests did reveal themselves naturally. I suppose there were a number of layers: the racing story and Sharmaine’s desire to get a horse and start racing again; Charity‘s road to recovery; Kiara growing up; and, of course, the relationship with Savannah. Each of those storylines had natural beats and turning points. 

The most frustrating for me was that I wanted to end on a big race – whether Sharmaine won or lost — but we weren’t able to get permission to be on the track for that last race that we flew over for, so we ended up having to shoot it from a long distance. I just wish we had been able to be there on the track with her.

L-R: Colm O’Meara, Savannah Martinez and Kim Bartley

While it’s a deeply personal story, the documentary has a very cinematic feel, in terms of its cinematography and score. Was this always your intention?

I always film these types of documentaries myself because when a story is this intimate and personal, I feel having a crew is too intrusive. When it’s just myself and my partner Colm we kind of blend in, and I often shoot as I chat to someone I just have the camera with me all the time.

I shot most of the film myself, except for the drone footage, and also a very talented camera op called Korey Kazmarek who I reached out to because he had filmed other documentaries around horses — and unlike me he’s comfortable around horses! He joined us for two races so that we would have multiple cameras on the track. My dream was to have multiple manned cameras on the track but we didn’t have the budget, so the races were down to Korey and myself as well as locked off cameras. We were joined on one race by two young guys Parker Temple & Brendan Durrum, and that turned out to be the race where Sharmaine fell off so we were able to cover it properly. 

I’m very happy to hear the film described as cinematic as I always wanted it to feel like an expansive big screen film. The landscape and light in Wyoming obviously played a huge role. I had all kinds of plans to shoot certain sequences — almost like impressionistic sequences of Sharmaine on horseback — but that was before It became clear we weren’t going to find the funding to make it happen.

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from the film.?

I hope it shines a little light into a community that is often misunderstood and often looked down upon. I hope it maybe gives courage to young women (or men) out there who have suffered some kind of abuse and are keeping it to themselves because they’re not believed. Above all I would like it to give people a sense of hope and joy, because I think that Sharmaine‘s extraordinary bravery and pure grit are an inspiration.

Pure Grit Review For Screen Daily

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