Fragments Festival: In Conversation with Kim Bartley, Director of “Pure Grit”
What does it mean to explore non-fiction narratives through film? Accompanying other people with a camera during their everyday life is always difficult, but at the same time, it is an extraordinary journey for all parties involved, including the director, the film crew, and also the subject of the film. While documentaries capture meaningful moments, they also allow the protagonist to share significant points in their life with the filmmakers and viewers.
Kim Bartley, a documentary filmmaker raised in Paris, but now based in Ireland, is known for her deep and heart-rending narratives. Bartley once said that she likes to “make intimate and thought-provoking documentaries” and that her focus is “on developing open and trusting relationships with those I film and finding ways to translate their emotions and their stories into compelling, creative films with grit and heart”.
Last year, Kim Bartley released a powerful documentary, Pure Grit, a story of Sharmaine, a young Native American woman who lives in the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The film depicts the protagonist as a driven and passionate former horse relay racing champion who is trying to pursue her love for racing. To an array of positive reviews, Pure Grit was a closing night film at this year’s Fragments Festival in London.
Prior to the festival, we caught up with Kim Bartley and discussed the production of the documentary, including the creative process and her connection with Sharmaine and her family.
How did you come about Sharmaine’s story and what prompted you to make Pure Grit?
I was in the US shooting another documentary about parallels between Irish travellers and the commonality between issues about race in the US. My friend is a traveller, and he was travelling with me. We were visiting Native American and African-American communities and that’s the time when we came across horse relay racing, and it blew our minds! But on the day, everyone who was racing was male. We found out that there are a handful of women that race as well. We were leaving shortly for Ireland, but horse relay racing stuck in my head. And one day, I came across Sharmaine on Facebook, she was very visually striking, so then we started messaging – she was a really open and interesting person to talk to.
Later on, I was on a separate shoot, however, Sharmaine already knew about my idea for the documentary, but at that time, she was in the middle of the stuff that was happening with her sister after the accident [Sharmaine’s sister became partly paralysed in a horse relay racing accident]. But I told her that I will be in the US again, we met and we just clicked and went from there, really.
As the documentary chronicles three years of Sharmaine’s life, how long did it take you to make the film and wrap up the production? Did you have the script ready prior to the production?
Not at all, it was purely observational which obviously makes it harder to fund because people want to know what’s going to happen. At the beginning, I was solely focused on the racing, but the more time I spent with Sharmaine the other aspects of her life came out, and she wanted to talk about it as well. The whole [filming] experiment became something else. It was hard to do the filming based on observation and not [in the reservation] at times, but that’s how things are sometimes.
Unfortunately, we got caught up in the midst of the Covid pandemic, and we weren’t allowed to properly film the last race that’s in the film. And then we couldn’t go back to the US because of Covid, that was a shame as Sharmaine went on to win a huge race. But you know, it’s not about losing and winning in the story, it’s about doing it, it’s about participating in the races. For me, and particularly for Sharmaine, it was a documentary about bravery, determination, and strength. Overall, it took us a few months to make this film.
How did you manage to build a connection with Sharmaine and feature her personal and heart-breaking stories in the documentary? Also, how did you manage to enter the reservation and spent time with her family?
You know, every documentary is about trust and building a relationship with people you are filming with, and often it takes time. In this case, when I went to see Sharmaine face to face, I had a camera on me as I was on another job, but I wasn’t filming or anything, I just wanted to meet and talk to Sharmaine. I remember meeting Sharmaine with her girlfriend, Savannah, at that time and we just clicked. There is not a lot going on where they live, and I am sure this documentary was also something exciting for them to do.
Later on, Sharmaine told me about her past and I was slightly concerned about it, in terms of her family and in terms of people in general. We talked a lot about the issues she experienced in the past and what it would mean if it all came out in the documentary. The thing is, she always said that she had a story and that she just wanted to share it. She’s convinced that this was meant to be, our strange meeting, you know, between someone from Ireland and her in the US.
In terms of access to the reservation, there are only two tribes there. We had to approach the tribal authorities, present what we were doing and about to do, and explain everything so we could film on the reservation. But other than that, we just have a really warm relationship with the family.
In terms of the cinematography, how did you manage to capture the wilderness and the beauty of the reservation and its land, as well as the horse races?
99% of the camera work was done by me. When you make something quite intimate, for me at least, I don’t think you ought to have a crew behind the camera. In terms of the races, well, we had a tiny budget and my dream was to use multiple cameras to capture the essence of horse relay racing. I filmed all the races on my own camera, and my partner had a camera in one hand and in the other they held our sound equipment to get the crowd’s reaction [Kim laughs]. But then we found an incredible DOP who is based in Montana and whose documentary, Unbranded, was about wild mustangs. I asked him to come to the races. He came and was able to do the long lens stuff on one of the races when Sharmaine fell off the horse, we were lucky to have him with us on that day. For that one race we had many cameras, however, for everything else we had just one or two cameras. We also had a drone that allowed us to capture the beauty of the reservation and the nature surrounding it.
To be honest with you, it was a very easy place to film beautiful shots, the light was extraordinary and the nature was stunning. All of this made my job easier.
Post-production always seems to be the hardest part of filmmaking, including editing. What was that process like for you?
Firstly, I have an amazing editor called Paul Mullen and he worked with me on a lot of things before. He developed a shorthand for editing and a similar style to me. Paul is amazing, he has a great sense of pace as well. But the editing process was a weird one as Covid happened and we had to do the editing remotely, but it worked out fine.
At the end of the day, you learn not to overshoot. I’m intuitive enough to shoot what I need, while not overshooting. So, pretty much everything that I filmed is in Pure Grit. And I also do the editing in my head as I film, so I have a good idea of what I want when I’m entering the editing studio.
Let’s talk about the score. The music in the film is incredible; not only does it blend with the documentary beautifully, but it also balances well with the sound of nature.
The music was written by two Irish composers, Kevin Murphy and Stephen Shannon, and they are just amazing. I have seen them on stage at the National Theatre here in Ireland, and they have always been great.
When people go and see this documentary at the cinema, what would you like them to take away from it? Is there a particular message you want to send across?
I would like them to take away two things. I think the role of a documentary is to create empathy with people, communities, and places that you don’t necessarily know. I would love for people to see Native American communities in a different light and then I would like for the audience to hear Sharmaine’s story. She always wanted for her story to be heard, and the fact that she is where she is now is all thanks to her determination. She wants to be an inspiration to young Native American women.
You know, there is a huge issue around violence, especially sexual violence against Native American woman, whether it is within the community or outside of it. What we also try to do is to show this film on the reservation to the young women and girls who live there and inspire them not to be afraid to speak up.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler