Film maker Kim Bartley told David Hennessy about Pure Grit, the award-winning documentary that gives insight into both the dangerous world of bareback racing and a marginalised Native American community.
Kim Bartley’s documentary Pure Grit has its UK premiere this weekend as part of Fragments festival at Genesis Cinema.
Pure Grit takes the viewer into the world of extreme bareback horse racing, a deadly sport where an accident can cause life changing injuries or even death- Something the film’s subjects know all too well.
Filmed over three years, the film follows Sharmaine, a former champion and one of few females in the sport, as she seeks to return to the sport.
Sharmaine quit racing to care for her sister Charity after she was paralysed in a catastrophic accident on the track.
Charity could have died.
The film follows Sharmaine who is, supported by her girlfriend Savanna, determined to ride again. And win.
By spending three years with the Shoshone family on the Wind River reservation, Bartley has created a poignant study of the challenges and triumphs of lives lived on the fringes and something of an untold story as Native Americans on such reservations live cut off from main society.
Kim Bartley told The Irish World: “It’s a story of the triumph of the human spirit and I think that transcends culture and nationality and everything else.”
How did this story come to Kim? And how did she get this family to open up to her? “It was pure chance.
“I happened to be in the states filming a different a documentary series around issues of race with John Connors, actor and traveller.
“We were kind of looking at issues around race, because it was the time of Black Lives Matter, through the eyes of an Irish traveller.
“We were over there and happened to be on a reservation and come across this bareback racing, and it was just mind blowing.”
Native American bareback riding is a deadly sport.
“The fascination wasn’t so much with the danger.
“It’s thrilling, it’s a thrilling sport.
“I actually found it very difficult- I’ve done a lot of filming of boxing and it reminded me of that, where you’re behind the camera but you’re cringing, well I am anyway, filming something like that.
“I didn’t quite realize how dangerous it was when I first came across it.
“When you’re making documentaries so much of it, to me anyway, is instinct.”
“It’s visually spectacular because the races tend to be part of what they have called powwows, which are the yearly gatherings of different indigenous communities.
“And people tend to race in their family colours, their tribal colours, and it’s just incredible to watch as an outsider.
“They’re just totally fearless. There’s no saddles. They’re exchanging horses in mid-air as they’re racing.
“And then there’s a guy called a holder, or a girl but generally men, who are standing there and as they exchange horses, that person catches the loose horse so you’ve got this wild horse coming straight at you very fast and you have to kind of stop them in their tracks with your bare arms.
“It’s really wild and exciting and skilled. I mean, the skill is extraordinary.
“I just kind of became a bit obsessed with it after seeing it and curious about the women because there were very few women racing.
“So I got on to Facebook, started putting word out that I wanted to talk to female riders. And up pops Sharmaine.
“That was it, went from there. We just talked online.
“When you’re making documentaries so much of it, to me anyway, is instinct.
“I just kind of knew that she would make a great person to film.
“I just knew she’d be great.
“So, maybe six months later, I was in the US filming and I just bit the bullet and made my way up to where she was to see what she was like in person.
“We just hit it off. And her family, we just really clicked.
“Her family let me in from the minute we got there.”
However, the patriarchal nature of the society they live in meant that Kim needed the approval of Sharmaine’s older brother Brandon as well.
“It’s quite a patriarchal society and her older brother would really have a say in the family, over what people do or what she does.
“So when we first met, she was very keen to do a documentary but she was very much, ‘You know, we’ll have to kind of see how my brother feels about this…’
“And the brother rocked up on day one and said- Maybe it was a test- He said, ‘Why don’t we take them out hunting?’
“It was November. It was winter. There was snow almost up to our waist. It was freezing and we said, ‘Yeah, great’.
“And they knocked on the motel door at 4am, which we weren’t expecting, ‘We thought we would be going out tomorrow’.
“So we ended up trekking up the snow at 4am with them as they hunted and it was like bonding.
“And by the end of it he, the brother, was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. I’m happy for us all to be involved’.”
Sharmaine and her girlfriend Savanna speak movingly about difficulties in their upbringing. Sharmaine reveals the abuse she suffered as a teenager while Savanna had alcoholism in her family.
“When I first met Sharmaine, I didn’t know that she was abused as a child.
“And she said it to me and happened to say to me while I was filming, so it kind of came out of nowhere.
“It was a real shock to me because we were filming something else entirely and she just started talking about it.
“You have a huge responsibility as a filmmaker if someone reveals something like that to you to make sure that they are doing what’s right for them, never mind the film.
“And that they’re not going to regret it later on, that they’re not going to upset family members or friends, there’s all of that.
“Native American women, I think it’s one in three have experienced some kind of sexual violence so it’s something that I was very happy to highlight when it became part of the story, and we just talked about it a lot.
“I always said, ‘If you change your mind or if your family aren’t happy, you just tell me and I’ll leave it out’.
“But Sharmaine wants this film to serve as kind of a conversation starter, especially amongst other young Native American women.
“We’ve been showing it on reservations and hoping to show it in schools.
“It came about organically and then in terms of her girlfriend, she had her own issues growing up, a mother who was in addiction to alcohol, which made things very difficult for her growing up.
“Again, it’s something she was comfortable talking about. I would never ask someone to reveal something personal if they’re not happy to.”
That is great that it is opening that conversation, isn’t it? “It’s what you hope to do with a documentary.
“I think those issues are difficult issues for anyone to discuss so if you can come at it in a way that introduces a subject through storytelling, then great.
“It’s really wild and exciting and skilled. I mean, the skill is extraordinary.”
“I hope it will help.
“And plus more than anything, she always said the reason she was doing this was she wanted to inspire, and I think she’s managed to do that in spades.
“I think Sharmaine is an inspirational character, the fact that she never gives up no matter what life throws at her, she never gives up.
“And I think that in itself is inspiring. No matter what your past is whether you’ve had any trauma or not, I think that’s really inspiring.
“I think she’s achieved her goal of inspiring others.”
There is no time wasted on self-pity in Pure Grit. Even though Charity is left to raise a child with a paralysing disability, you can see her and others around her just getting on with things.
And Sharmaine shows no trepidation of getting back on the horse despite knowing just how deadly it can be.
Kim remembers, “I was the one running around going, ‘Are you sure you want to get back on the horse?’ So terrified for her.
“Because her younger sister had had an accident that left her partially paralyzed.
“And she’s fighting it as you see in the film.
“She really makes progress.
“But that was a life altering accident.
“Her brother had a similar accident before I met her where he broke almost every bone in his body and he started racing again while I was there.
“I mean there is no comfort in bareback racing.
“There’s no cushioning and even when things go well and they don’t fall or get injured, they come off and they’re black and blue.
“It’s really, really tough.
“So when Sharmaine decided she was getting back on, there was no stopping her.
“I’m sure there was a fear there somewhere but she was so determined. She enjoys it and loves it so much that that just took over.
“She always says, ‘it’s in my blood’ and really that is the sense you got.
“It’s part of who they are, who she is and that just overshadows everything else, you know?
“But some courage.”
Pure Grit will close Fragments festival, an inclusive film festival created by London’s Genesis Cinema.
The festival is a platform for underrepresented filmmakers to exhibit their work. This means films from women, non-binary, ethically diverse, disabled, disadvantaged and LGBTQIA+.
This is apt as Kim’s work is all about giving a voice to those who don’t have one.
“I think documentary is a really powerful tool and I think if used properly, it can help create empathy, which is what I’d love to always be able to do through my films.
“So often racism or hate or any of those things come from a lack of actual connection, never having met someone from another community or just reading what you read in the tabloids, or hearsay or whatever it is.
“So I think, if you can provide people with a window into someone else’s life and in a non-tabloid-y way, just everyday ordinary life, I think then you can probably help create empathy.
“That’s why the Fragments festival is brilliant and the other layer to this documentary is that Sharmaine, obviously, is a lesbian woman with a girlfriend.
“And that I wasn’t expecting when I got out there.
“I didn’t know until she introduced me to her lovely girlfriend and that’s not hugely common, let’s say, within the indigenous communities.
“Again it is becoming more common and more accepted, but it’s not entirely it’s not easy, not necessarily easy for people.”
The film won Best Documentary at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh and was nominated for Best Documentary at the IFTA Awards.
Oscar- nominated director Lenny Abrahamson described it as “hypnotic, deeply moving and so beautifully made. Sharmaine and her family will stay with me for a very long time.”
The Irish Times described it as ‘A beautifully moving documentary’ while Screen Daily said it was ‘a poignant study of the challenges and triumphs of lives lived on the fringes’.
Kim is one of Ireland’s most renowned documentary filmmakers.
She is a multi-award-winning filmmaker for television and cinema whose projects have received international acclaim.
She has worked on projects concerned with the travelling community in Ireland and Kim sees many similarities between this cut off and marginalised community featured in Pure Grit and the Irish travelling community.
“Yeah, there’s an awful lot of parallels.
“I mean, there’s historical parallels.
“I suppose there would be a level of historical trauma that they share.
“There’s a real kind of shared history of the worst kind.
“Then in terms of culture, the horse culture is so strong, the family bonds are so strong, that sense of living in community.
“There was a real sense that I had been around these people before from knowing Irish travellers over here, and then what they live through now.
“There’s a huge amount of institutional racism in the US and ignorance, a lot of people don’t mix.
“In terms of interconnection between Native American communities on reservations and others, it’s quite disconnected.
“I think the same goes here for travellers so there’s a lot of parallels.”
Kim got to see how her subjects were perceived by those just off the reservation.
“There’s definitely a sense of them being marginalized, isolated.
“A couple of times someone came up to me when I was just off the reservation and asked me what I was doing because I had a camera.
“I told them I was just on my way into the res to film and they kind of were like, ‘Oh, you know, they’re going to steal your camera’ or this kind of bullsh*t, which is just ignorance and lack of having any real life experience or engagement with people.
“Obviously, both communities have their issues.
“There’s huge issues around alcoholism, there’s huge issues around drug use, in particular meth over in the US.
“As is mentioned in the film, there’s a lot of issues around sexual violence against women.
“And some of those are issues here, with Irish travellers as well.
“And that’s something I think both communities are working hard to address but it comes from marginalization and poverty.
“Same old issues, you know.
“There’s no question that there’s still huge racism in Ireland and people will say, ‘Oh, well, there’s issues around crime and whatever’.
“Of course there are, there’s no denying that there are but the fact is that you can’t paint an entire community because of individual acts, whatever those acts are.
“I think that racism is alive and well unfortunately.
“I do think, especially in the arts now, and John Connors or Martin Beanz Warde, there’s people out there that are really now changing things, giving a voice to young travellers and kind of getting involved in things that traditionally travellers wouldn’t have had a say in terms of mixing with the settled community, whether it’s filmmaking or the arts and all of that.
“So that’s great. That is great that it is changing.”
Pure Grit premiered in the UK at Genesis Cinema at 6.16pm on Sunday 2 October as part of Fragments festival.
Fragments runs Thursday 29 September- Sunday 2 October.
For more information, go to fragmentsfest.com.
For more information on Kim, go to kimbartleydirector.com.
Pure Grit will be available on Digital in November.
In Irish cinemas from 30 September.