‘Near-death experiences happen a lot. But I pray to ask for protection and for my horse to be okay’

Kim Bartley’s film Pure Grit tells the moving story of Indian relay racer Sharmaine Weed

Pure Grit: ‘It’s very scary. They’re really wild horses. And Sharmaine is tiny,’ says film-maker Kim Bartley

Pure Grit: ‘It’s very scary. They’re really wild horses. And Sharmaine is tiny,’ says film-maker Kim Bartley

 

Sharmaine Weed from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is telling me about the last time she came off a speeding horse.

“Thirty minutes before the race they go, ‘Will you race for us?’ I fell off because the stuff that I had on was too slippery. And I fell off and hit the dirt and had to recover from that little fall. It’s pretty tough. They say, ‘The ambulance want to see you. They’re coming over now’. I say, ‘I can’t. I have another race!’ I took off and raced and took second in the championship.” She laughs. “Near-death experiences happen a lot. But I pray about it before I go out there and I ask for protection and ask for my horse to be okay.”

Weed is a 28-year-old Native American bareback horse racer. She is the subject of Pure Grit, a beautiful, moving documentary directed by the Irish director Kim Bartley, which is debuting at the Galway Film Fleadh this Friday. Bartley’s film (produced by Rachel Lysaght and edited by Paul Mullen) takes us into Weed’s life just after she and her girlfriend Savannah Martinez move in with Weed’s mother, sister and niece at the Wind River Reservation, to help out when her sister is disabled in a riding accident. As the film progresses (perfectly soundtracked by Kevin Murphy and Stephen Shannon), we follow Weed and her family as they grapple with rehabilitation, connection, trauma, bereavement and the exhilaration of racing in the spectacular Wyoming landscape.

Irish film-maker Kim Bartley in Wyoming
Irish film-maker Kim Bartley in Wyoming

Indian relay racing harks back to the days when the best riders in a tribe would be dispatched across long distances as messengers, switching horses along the way. The riders ride bareback, often without helmets. Weed’s grandfather, a second World War veteran named Morning Starr Moses Weed, was central to keeping the tradition alive. He died a few years ago at the age of 102. Her older brother won the World Championship when he was 14. “I was five years old when I first rode a pony,” says Weed. “My brother said I was crying, ‘I want to ride, I want to ride’ and he said, ‘You don’t know how to ride, you’re going to fall off.’ And he didn’t try to help or lead me around or anything. He let me get on and the horse took off and I fell off and I started crying. It just made me want to get back on again.” To this day, she says, “I always race new horses. Some of these horses will never be trained even to come out of the gates... and I’ll come out and I’ll race them. I’m kind of crazy, a little bit.”

Trapped

Why does she like it so much? She laughs. “I don’t just like it. I love it. I love it because through life those horses are what helped me get through all the pain of what was going on in my life. I was trying to escape a situation that I was basically trapped in as a child. I had no control over anything. But whatever was in front of me, those horses were there.”

Bartley happened upon Indian relay racing for the first time when filming a different project at a different reservation. She was astounded by the sport. “When they’re getting back up on a horse with every bone in their body broken, you kind of go, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” says Bartley. “I’m not great with horses. That was my biggest difficulty throughout this whole thing. A horse would rear up in front of me and I’d fall over to get out of the way. It’s very scary. They’re really wild horses. And Sharmaine is tiny. She’s five foot nothing... They’re brave, I’ll tell you that.”

She first got in touch with Sharmaine Weed through Facebook. And some time later, with a day’s notice, she turned up at Weed’s door in Wyoming. “It was one of those instinctive things, I just knew there was something in Sharmaine just from our brief little text messaging back and forth. The night I got there they knocked on the door at 3am going, ‘Come hunting with us.’ It was minus-20 or whatever it was. Then Sharmaine herself was so incredibly open. And I knew nothing about her past, I just knew about the racing.”

Sound recordist Colm O’Meara, bareback horse racer Sharmaine Weed and film-maker Kim Bartley in Wyoming
Sound recordist Colm O’Meara, bareback horse racer Sharmaine Weed and film-maker Kim Bartley in Wyoming

Sharmaine Weed, she soon learned, is a remarkable young woman. When she was just 14 she testified in court against someone who had been sexually abusing her for years. “She was 12 when she first reported it,” says Bartley. “She decided she wasn’t going to put up with it anymore... No one wanted her to speak out. And then she ended up standing up in court on her own without any family or friends telling her story when she was 14. And I think that’s just shaped who she is today... She is incredibly brave.”

For Weed this was the main reason to do the documentary. She wanted more people to hear her story. “I don’t want it to happen to other people,” she says. “It could change a person’s mind from doing it to another little kid, or maybe a kid that is going through it can have some hope that [they’re] not the only one that’s going through that. Because when they’re that young they’re so manipulated and trapped... I’m hoping that this gives them some hope and that they could find something that they love to do.”

Fine line

For Bartley, a film like this is a collaboration with the subject, and it’s all about trust. A veteran of socially conscious documentary-making, she is very aware of the fine line that lies between giving someone a voice and potentially exploiting them. “It’s about representing someone in the most honest and truthful way that you can,” she says. “I always say to people, ‘If you change your mind about something, or if you say something and wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, ‘I should never have said that,’ you tell me, and that will never see the light of day.’ I would never disrespect that gift that they give you in their own story. You just can’t. It’s too important.”

She also thinks the way she shoots her films helps the process. “It’s basically myself and my partner [Colm O’Meara] who’s a sound recordist. It’s just the two of us. Some documentary-makers have the camera on all the time... I would spend quite a bit of time getting to know people before that because I want to be very, very sure that they understand what’s involved... I spend a bit of time getting to know people and then we film... The fact that we, myself and Colm, are a couple weirdly impacts on how people react to us as well, because it does not feel like a film crew. It’s Kim and Colm. So Sharmaine and Savannah are having a little a row and then they turn around and go, ‘Oh my god, Do you guys ever fight like this?’” She laughs. “It’s a different dynamic, I guess.”

Weed agrees. “I love Kim... Her and Colm. It wasn’t even like work. They were family. It was meant to be.”

Savannah Martinez and Sharmaine Weed in Pure Grit. Photograph: Underground Films
Savannah Martinez and Sharmaine Weed in Pure Grit. Photograph: Underground Films

Discrimination and racism hover at the edges of Weed’s story. Bartley thinks observational documentaries are potentially tools for change and, at the very least, developing empathy and understanding. “In a documentary, without preaching you can tell the story and have all those layers unfold, and you can kind of hit people when they least expect it and upturn their preconceived notions.”

Emotional

The family are happy with the film and they are usually, Weed says, “very hard on ourselves”. Watching it, she says, was “very emotional. There’s a lot of emotions... And then it’s like, you have the watch it again, because there’s so much going on.”

They’ve already moved on a lot. Her sister’s health has improved significantly, she says. “I’m very proud of her. I feel like she’s going to inspire a lot of people... The doctors basically gave her a 50/50 chance for her to be able to talk and be able to learn how to walk... But we prayed hard. There was a big prayer chain going from Montana all the way down to South Carolina. praying for her.”

Since completing the film, Weed herself has had to deal with a bout of depression in the wake of bereavement. She’s made some lifestyle changes. She has given up alcohol. She’s in a good place. She’s currently working as a Covid test specialist. She has a new car, an Impala. She’s still racing. She never really knew much about Ireland before meeting Bartley and she hopes, when pandemic restrictions ease, to come visit. She’s heard we also have a bit of a horse culture here. “It was crazy when I bought my first horse because his name is Cry Irish... We didn’t name him. His name was Cry Irish when I bought him.”

Bartley is hoping for the film to get a wide release and would like to eventually take it on a tour of reservations and schools with Weed. Weed really likes the idea of being some form of motivational speaker to help empower young people. She’d clearly be good at it. “Though I have a hard time with big crowds,” she says.

But doesn’t she frequently race in front of a crowd? “I ignore that crowd. I don’t fear them at all. [In a race] it goes completely silent for me. I don’t fear anything.”

Pure Grit premieres at the Galway Film Fleadh’s outdoor cinema on Friday July 23rd at 6pm. There is a second screening on Sunday July 25th at 4pm in the Pálás cinema. It can also be streamed online. Tickets can be bought through the Film Fleadh website
galwayfilmfleadh.eventive.org/films/60d611e72e076000b83d7ed1

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