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Bitterbrush, the assured debut by Emelie Mahdavian, joins a small subgenre of nonfiction film that includes Sweetgrass (to which its title might be a gentle retort?) and Hiver Nomade. Like those earlier docs, its action revolves around the traditions and hard work of herding livestock — in this case the rounding up of cattle from mountainous wildlands. Mahdavian and her intrepid collaborators have a sure feel for the sweeping expanse of their story’s Idaho terrain. But as the filmmaker traces a season of range riding for two exceptionally skilled and resourceful young women, her documentary becomes more than a portrait of against-the-elements fortitude; it poses piercing existential questions about purpose and independence, particularly for women choosing work that has long been deemed the exclusive province of men.
Mahdavian’s subjects, Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, have been working together for about five years as hired hands for different ranches. Bitterbrush finds them settling in for one of those jobs, a four-month stint that will take them from late spring to the snows of early fall. They arrive with their horses and dogs and check out the very basic amenities of the rustic cabin they’ll share — this is no Airbnb. They note matter-of-factly that the toilet needs to be repaired, their equanimity signaling the confidence and composure they bring to their long days out on the range, on horseback with their devoted canine pack.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Director: Emelie Mahdavian1 hour 31 minutes
The film’s lean, muscular elegance suits the remote setting (identified as Idaho in the press notes, not in the film’s sparsely uses titles). That approach to storytelling, devoid of the touches of melodrama in Chloé Zhao’s hybrid works about the American West, reflects, too, the understated and unflappable self-reliance of Colie and Hollyn. Working with accomplished editor Curtiss Clayton (whose many fiction credits include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford , The 11th Green and a number of films by Gus Van Sant), Mahdavian sculpts a discerning narrative. Bach piano pieces (performed by the duo Anderson & Roe) deepen and amplify scenes of the women at work, the music’s structural rigor and spirituality emphasizing the beauty that surrounds them, and their profound connection to it.
That connection is evident whether cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía are capturing the women up close or, in overhead shots of magnificent scope, as tiny glyphs on the rolling landscape. With their big skies, unobstructed views and rich palettes, the film’s panoramas can look like lovingly rendered paintings. That painterly sensibility extends beyond the figurative: At times there’s an abstract quality to the visuals, in their flowing lines and, as in an affectingly off-center close-up of a horse’s eye, their subtle geometry.
Beyond its immersive experience of the pastoral setting’s weather and flora, Bitterbrush also gives us a range rider’s point of view, with the camera-wielding Howard often riding alongside Hollyn and Colie. There’s a respectful, measured intimacy to the film; the emotional distance it maintains is in keeping with its central duo’s utter lack of self-dramatization, even when they’re discussing life-changing news or painful memories. By contrast, a shot of a book Colie is reading (Bobby Schuller’s Happiness According to Jesus) feels out of sync in its pointedness and almost intrusive.
The women’s exchanges are often propelled by deadpan humor, and, to someone who’s not from ranch country, might sound weirdly uninflected. But they’re often talking about momentous stuff. Over an end-of-day campfire, the conversation enters more straightforwardly emotional territory. Recalling a beloved working dog, Hollyn notes that she couldn’t figure out where to bury her ashes because, as someone who goes from one riding job to the next, there’s no place that’s truly home. Opening up about her mother’s death, and her regrets about the invasiveness of hospital life support, Colie offers this heart-stopping summation: “The good thing that did come out of those three days is that I got to memorize her hands.”
Hollyn is on a path toward marriage and raising a family, and the film deftly reveals the way those choices can quell certain anxieties. For Colie, who’s single, the economic realities facing independent ranchers loom large — the repos and bankruptcies, the increasing dominance of corporate interests. She’s determined to have her own place, to be more than a hired hand, and to hold her own with her father, her brother, and any range-riding cowboy.
Colie’s comments at times have the poetic urgency of aphorisms, some of them rough and searching (“It’s hard trying to figure out life”) and some as smooth as river stones. “God’s taught me more about myself working a horse than I’ve ever taught a horse,” she tells Hollyn while the latter is breaking a feisty filly. The showdown between cowgirl and horse unfolds during a compelling 12-minute scene, with Hollyn’s fiancé, Elijah, also offering encouragement, if not words of inspiration à la Colie. Hollyn calls the horse “Marilyn,” for her light coloring — and it’s hard not to wonder if she’s seen Monroe in The Misfits, with its wrenching wild-mustangs sequence.
In a scene out on the range, the women discover a sick cow and offer her comforting pats as they guide her toward the rest of the cattle. Their compassion is striking, especially when you consider where all those animals are headed after they’re rounded up. As a city-dwelling non-meat-eater, you might recoil, or be tempted to judge, or at least think about the inner lives of the cows, horses and dogs in the film.
Mahdavian certainly doesn’t judge or invite judgment, but she shapes her film in ways that leave room to contemplate. Whatever you think about the business of raising cattle, there’s no question that range riding is an art as well as a job that’s not for the fainthearted, and there’s no denying that Hollyn and Colie do it uncommonly well.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production companies: Concordia Studio, Wavelength, Old Chilly Pictures
Director: Emelie Mahdavian
Producers: Su Kim, Emelie Mahdavian
Executive producers: Laurene Powell Jobs, Davis Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg Nicole Stott, Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer
Cinematographers: Derek Howard, Alejandro Mejía
Editors: Curtiss Clayton, Emelie Mahdavian
Sound designer: Daniel Timmons
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