Pure Grit: Irish filmmaker takes on tale of Indian relay racer

Kim Bartley's documentary looks at the life of a rare female rider in the sport in South Dakota, writes Esther McCarthy
Pure Grit: Irish filmmaker takes on tale of Indian relay racer

A scene from Pure Grit. 

Like all the great sports documentaries, Pure Grit is about the desire to win but so much more. The film explores the dramatic world of Indian relay racing, where Native Americans race bareback in teams, embracing their culture in the process. When Irish filmmaker Kim Bartley happened upon a race while in the US for another project, she was instantly hooked.

“It was pure chance as so many of my documentaries are,” she says. “I was actually over in the States filming a different documentary series. We came across the Indian relay racing, which I'd never heard of, and never seen, and it was just mind-blowing.

“Everyone racing on that particular reservation that I was on, which was Pine Ridge, South Dakota, were all men. There was one woman and I was curious about whether women race and she told me they do, but not as many.”

Intrigued, Bartley took to social media on returning to Ireland and it was on Facebook that she first crossed paths with Charmaine, the subject of her documentary.

Living on the Wind River reservation with her girlfriend Savannah, Charmaine is determined to return to racing having taken time out to care for her sister, left paralysed in a catastrophic accident on the track.

Kim Bartley filming Pure Grit. 
Kim Bartley filming Pure Grit. 

Ostensibly a film about her return to the sport, Pure Grit builds into an emotional tale of love, identity, and crafting a future in the tough Wyoming wilderness.

“I just thought she looked really interesting,” recalls Bartley. “We messaged back and forth a couple of times. When you make documentaries for a living, you get a real sense of who will work or who won't or if someone has a story.

“There was just something about her. I was up late in my kitchen in Wicklow, she was over in Wyoming, we chatted on the phone a couple of times, and I just really liked her vibe. I asked her could we meet next time I was in the States. She was up for it, but the accident that is mentioned in the opening of the film had just happened. So she wasn't racing, and it was all a little bit up in the air.” 

Bartley’s film would end up taking place over the course of three years in Charmaine’s life as life’s plans threw challenges her way. Like many of the best documentaries, it goes down unexpected paths.

“You don't get into it [documentary filmmaking] knowing where a story is going to lead you. So it was a tricky one to get financed. If you don't know where your story ends, no one wants to get involved but Screen Ireland did in fairness from the get go.

“Then it was really far. With an observation documentary, you're relying on being around when something happens. And obviously I was miles away and like not only that, it's a difficult place to get to even once you're over in the States.” 

 But belief in her project and her subject made the filmmaker persevere, and having Taylor Sheridan on board as an executive producer helped. An acclaimed writer and actor, Sheridan’s writing credits include Sicario and Hell or High Water. He went on to direct the powerful drama Wind River, set on Charmaine’s reservation, and was familiar with the Native American community.

“What was great was he was able to put us in touch with one particular Native American lawyer and he was able to help us navigate all the legals around approaching the tribe for permission to film and all of that.

A scene from Pure Grit. 
A scene from Pure Grit. 

“I’d seen Wind River and he had wrestled that back off (Harvey) Weinstein, when that happened, and all the proceeds — what would have gone to the Weinstein Studio — ended up going to the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, so I liked that about him. I was delighted to have him involved.”

The result is a stunning-looking film set in a beautiful but tough environment as Charmaine aims to return to the sport where she feels most at home.

“It’s a stunning, absolutely beautiful part of the world,” agrees Barley. “It's in the middle of Wyoming, mountains, nature. It's gorgeous for a visit. If you're living there, especially on the reservation, it's a lot harsher.

“There are actually no jobs — there's one shop, two casinos. And then in the winter, for certainly six months of the year, it's snow up to your knees.”


  •  Pure Grit is currently showing in selected cinemas 


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