Emelie Mahdavian didn’t set out to subvert the tropes of the campfire western. The documentary filmmaker (Sundance 2019 entry “Midnight Traveler”) had been living off-grid for three years near Mackay Idaho, reviving a local independent cinema with her husband. She’d been looking for a way to explore the rural residents’ relationship to the land when she met Hollyn Patterson, a woman who cowboyed for a living. (For range riders, “cowboy” is a verb.) When she heard Patterson planned a cattle drive that summer with a friend, Colie Moline, Mahdavian talked the two women into letting her shoot it.
The result was “Bitterbrush,” which debuted at Telluride and makes its way to PVOD today. (Magnolia gave it a week’s head start in theaters.) From the start, Mahdavian was forced to confront her assumptions about cowboys. She found Patterson to be “weirdly stylish,” and both women are not only skilled horse and dog trainers who grew up on the range, but are also articulate, college-educated, and media-savvy. She was caught off-guard when Moline asked what she wanted audiences to take away from the film. Mahdavian told her she wanted them to “understand the cowboys in this place,” she said. “And this lifestyle, which is not often quite caught in the popular imagination in the way that they experience it.”
“Bitterbrush” captures the dramatic beauty of the remote Idaho landscape as well as its hazards and limitations. While the friends bond on the drive and find joy in the rigors of the cow-punching life, they also are trapped as low-wage earners in a dead-end work-for-hire system. They debate their options, including settling down to raise a family. That becomes more pressing when one cowgirl discovers she is pregnant. “That was a surprise,” said Mahdavian.
Moline was eager to discuss the economic hardships. “Coley cares about the future of the industry as a whole and the culture she was brought up in,” Mahdavian said. “She also really longs to run her own ranch. The challenge is not having a ranch to inherit. How do you then go out and strike your own claim in the world when when these are multimillion-dollar ranches and you’re working a seasonal gig job? How do you ever bridge that divide?”
The movie takes the viewer inside a vivid contemporary western landscape that undermines the masculine cowboy myth as well as assumptions about what women are capable of doing. “I realized that the external world didn’t always mirror my self-image,” said Mahdavian. “And I’m totally fascinated by the detail and the process of work: ‘What are these commands? And how do you train these dogs?’ It’s such a rich, highly skilled thing that they’re doing. I talked to them about their personal concerns, but I wanted to balance that in the film with the work, which is central for them.”
The logistics of filming horses and dogs and cattle as they traverse rugged River Range mountain terrain were “crazy,” said Mahdavian, who was eight months pregnant at the start of the shoot and couldn’t ride a horse. “Fortunately, because I was living very close, I did know the hills. You can’t get to any of these places by truck. You can only get there by horseback, or you can sometimes get partway by ATV if you can take a trail.”
When she wasn’t pregnant, the filmmaker carried gear on one horse and followed her cameraman on the other. She didn’t try to horse-walk and talk, but she miced the horsewomen and tracked their dialogue. “It’s enough to try to keep up with them,” she said. “The way that they banter with each other, no interview could intervene and get something better.”
During the 16 total days of filming, the toughest challenges were shooting a sudden white-out blizzard, which turned her cameraman “into a popsicle,” she said, and most dramatically, tracking a sick cow. “We rode so far with them, all the way up that mountain, above 12,000 feet. Physically, it was an eight- or nine-hour day of arduous riding, where you come back in the dark. There’s a lot of shale, too. The risk is the horses slide and fall.”
The director decided drones were not an option. “I wanted to be with them and the physicality of the work,” she said. “I didn’t want us to go to some distant mechanical point of view. I wanted to stick with them and see how they see things.”
Mahdavian knew the story would be framed by the 2019 June-to-September season, opening as the women moved into their mountain aerie and closing with the snows, plus an epilogue shot in April 2020. She fine-tuned the cut to tease out “the richness of their characters and their friendship,” she said. “What you can’t manufacture is the friendship. By the time that I was with Coley up in Montana at that ranch where she was working nights, and she was talking to Holland on the phone, there’s nothing you can do as a director other than thank the stars and try to film it well to capture that deep love and friendship that they have. You’re really trying to do justice to something that deserves honoring.”
Up next: Mahdavian is now teaching in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah, four and a half hours from her cabin. She’s developing a film about women glaciologists in Antarctica: “I have a thing about women doing work in cold places, apparently.”