Pure Grit – Fragments Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer and Director: Kim Bartley

Like the British royal family, the Weed family love dogs, horses and outdoor life. Also like the royals, they have special status and government funding.The similarity ends there.  As Native Americans on a reservation, the Weeds know only hardship and minimal oppoprtunity.

Kim Bartley’s  film Pure Grit is not a comfortable watch. It follows three years in the life of Sharmaine Weed, a young Native American woman, whose passion is bareback horse-riding, “a life-darkening sport”. If ‘grit’ stands for courage, determination and  endurance, she certainly has it.

We first see Sharmaine, silent, focused and still as a rock, shooting a deer. “I got him,” she says, matter-of-factly. She and her family don’t hunt just for fun. It’s partly meditative. Out in the silent  snow-covered mountains, her brother says, you can “take a moment, not worry about life.” It’s also necessary for survival. Sharmaine’s sister-in-law Amari remembers being taught to skin a deer, “five or six years back, when there was no food.”

Although it’s a documentary, Pure Grit has the emotional weight of a family drama. Early on, the camera pauses briefly on a fridge door, covered with magnets. One of them is the number of the Suicide Prevention Line. You’ll remember it near the end.

Sharmaine is the second of four siblings, and Bartley gives each of them a moment in the spotlight. Older brother Brandon dispenses riding advice liberally. He warns Sharmaine “everybody gets beaten.” They “don’t agree on everything,” but she acknowledges she has learnt a lot from him. Her younger brother Kashe admires her, and they are seen happily co-operating together, but he, like many on the reservation where there are few jobs and nothing to do in the winter except play with guns, is seriously troubled. At almost nineteen, he looks forward to being a good father to the child Amari is expecting, but his anger issues continue, and ultimately he is the reason Sharmaine leaves the reservation. Sharmaine’s sister Charity is a single mother, disabled since a fall from a horse in a first race. In her case ‘pure grit’ means intense physical rehabilitaiton before she is able to sit on a horse again.

The mother, who is not named, is a quiet constant presence. Once a keen rider herself, she understands the passion, but is horribly aware of the dangers. She ’s already “had a tough life.” Among her troubles was having to accept the painful truth that her daughter suffered years of sexual abuse. Speaking directly to the camera, Sharmaine states the facts : “from seven to eleven it was molestation. From eleven to fourteen it was rape.”

“There’s not a lot of gays – here on the res,” says Sharmaine. She met her  girlfriend Savannah on Facebook. Savannah, first seen carefully applying make-up in the rear-view mirror, is from a different world – Denver “where you wake up and the Walmart’s right there.” After her own unhappy childhood, Savannah finds reservation life soothing at first. She loves “to see mountains,” and admires the family who “live like the classic way.” (They thank fish for the sacrifice of life, and they know how to construct a tipi). Her high-fashion style contrasts with Sharmaine’s unconsciously pared -down elegance – white singlet, black pants and baseball cap. There is a sweet shot of them both tramping across snow, with one in sturdy boots and the other in thigh-high suede with high heels. It also highlights the gulf of difference between them. Savannah is only twenty-one by the end of the film. Sharmaine is six years older.

Sweeping mountain vistas with music are fine in hotel lobby videos, but unnecessary in a film like this, where the scenery is ever present. There are moments that feel staged, especially conversations between the two women -did Savannah originally complain of a “freaking barbecue… on a dang Sunday” or has she slightly modified her language for a second take? Most of the images, however, are memorable and thought provoking. At a state fair, after a disappointing race, Sharmaine confronts a wall of  bright yellow, red-jacketed Pooh Bears. Near the end, Sharmaine’s niece gazes up at the sky, apparently following something in flight. Not a magnificent bird, but a tattered plastic bag, a symbol of how much of the indigenous way of life has been destroyed.

Bareback riding is painful, dangerous and thrilling. Sharmaine Weed loves it. The film makes you long for her to succeed. She comes across as brave and powerful. Queenly, in fact.

Pure Grit is screening at the Fragments Film Fest 2022.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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