Pure Grit – Film Review
by Frank L.
Director – Kim Bartley
Writer – Kim Bartley
Stars – Savannah Martinez, Sharmaine Weed
Sharmaine Weed is a young Native American who lives in Wyoming on the Wind River reservation with her mother, sister, brothers and extended family. The director of this film, Kim Bartley lives in County Wicklow. Bartley through the internet became fascinated with bareback horse riding which is a Native American sport. The riders are mostly male but through Facebook, Bartley came across a small group of female enthusiasts and in particular Sharmaine. Over a period of three years and seven brief trips to Wind River (and Denver, Colorado) Bartley filmed Sharmaine and her family.
Sharmaine and bareback horse racing are in one sense the central theme of this generous documentary but it is also a study of the multiple challenges members of an indigenous Native American family face as each grapples with the challenges of everyday life in the twenty-first century.
The world of alcohol and drug abuse is apparent, mental health issues and child abuse are present too but kept under wraps. The world of bareback horse racing is magnificent in its recklessness as an escape from the grimness of everyday existence. Inevitably, this recklessness has a price. Sharmaine’s sister is the victim of a serious, incapacitating injury as a result of competing. But the need to compete is all-powerful for Sharmaine, as it is a form of escape. She cuts a striking figure but she too suffered abuse as a child yet her self-assuredness allows her to live with Savannah, who is a city girl, on the reservation in a tempestuous relationship. They met on Facebook, but the title of the film is what drives Sharmaine.
As her mother says if you fall off, you just get back on the horse. It is that spirit which epitomises Sharmaine and the various fractures which she suffers both physical and emotional.
The cinematography captures the raw energy of bareback riding, the harsh grandeur of the landscape and the exuberance of the native American’s traditional dress. The storytelling recounts the everyday struggle of dealing with serious physical injury, mental ill health and substance abuse, along with a fractious relationship. Each of these powerful elements Bartley manages to mix into a challenging whole. She presents a world which retains its pride notwithstanding how it has been treated by colonisers over several centuries.
This is a film which tells the story of native America which is a million miles away from the Hollywood world of cowboys and Indians and its mythology. It shows a young woman proud of her heritage as a native American and also her pursuit of a traditional sporting activity which is important to her and her society. It is a sport which requires great mental and physical courage. In a similar vein, Sharmaine and the members of her family have to surmount the complex multiplicity of societal challenges that living on a reservation creates.
Horseback riding symbolises the grit which they possess in order to survive and even thrive. It is a complex story and Bartley tells it with sensitivity. Bartley brings into public view an intelligent and brave woman who comes from a society whose concerns rarely are heeded. She employs all her skills as a filmmaker to make the world of Sharmaine accessible and comprehensible. She does so with finesse in a film that is visually beautiful. Both Bartley and Sharmaine can be proud of this documentary.