Pure Grit: opening up a hidden world with style

Few non-fiction films released this year have done a better job of encapsulating their protagonist

Pure Grit
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Director: Kim Bartley
Cert: 15A
Starring: Sharmaine Weed
Running Time: 1 hr 28 mins

This excellent documentary from Irish filmmaker Kim Bartley — who made The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with Donnacha Ó Briain — could easily find itself classified as a sports flick. The director spent three years following Sharmaine Weed, a young Shoshone woman from the Wind river reservation, as she tried to re-establish herself in the dangerous world of bareback horse racing.

The journey took her from the “res” to work as a security guard in Denver and back again. We learn a fair bit about the activity (yeah, I’m not surprised they often put a towel in their trousers) and get some thrilling footage of beast and human in uneasy harmony. But, in truth, that is mostly background noise. Pure Grit is, more than anything else, a character and community study. Few non-fiction films released this year have done a better job of encapsulating their protagonist. Few have so rigorously opened up a hidden world.

Sharmaine is a contained but welcoming guide to her people. We get some sense of the looming threats — sexual violence and drug abuse are addressed. But Bartley keeps her focus on Sharmaine’s efforts to make a good life for herself. It helps that she now has the somewhat younger Savannah by her side. “There are not a lot of gays on the res,” Sharmaine says, inadvertently echoing the most famous catchphrase from Little Britain. The film fulfils its anthropological duties by showing us an array of traditions and allowing our heroine to wear traditional clothing on a jutting red outcrop.

The beautiful camerawork — Bartley is her own cinematographer — adds to the richness of the depictions. Top-down drone shots capture the sparseness of her home territories and the drabber surroundings of Denver. Elsewhere, the fly-on-the wall footage manages surprisingly well balanced compositions.


The trick is to give the impression that the subjects are allowing their story to unfold naturally with no prodding from the filmmakers. Bartley and her team manage that admirably in a film that appears to drift toward a satisfactory — if necessarily open-ended — conclusion at a lolloping walk rather than a brisk canter. If you need any further reason to attend be aware that Pure Grit has the best movie cats of the season.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist