How ‘Bitterbrush’ Captured a Rarely Seen Side of the American West

Emelie Mahdavian knew the time was now. The documentary filmmaker was on the precipice of making her second documentary feature. It would be a demanding shoot: months out in remote Idaho, at high altitudes, shooting on horseback, and hiking—so much hiking. And Mahdavian was eight months pregnant. If she postponed, she would have to wait another year for the stars to align again. She had a choice to make.

“I was like, I’m making this film!” Mahdavian says. “I knew it was the only time.”

The result? bitterbrush, a sweeping, sumptuous look at the lives of Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, two female range riders working over one demanding summer. Mahdavian, who lived in rural Idaho at the time, met Hollyn at dinner at a neighbor’s house. It turned out, Colie and Hollyn only worked about 20 miles from the filmmaker. Mahdavian spent time with Hollyn, getting familiar with her work and occasionally filming her before diving into the shoot.

Over the course of the film, Colie and Hollyn hop on horseback and herd cattle out in the West. They’re incredibly skilled, working at great altitudes and in inclement weather, including rough blizzard. But bitterbrush it’s not just about their work. Mahdavian goes deeper, capturing the friendship between the duo, who work together all day, then hang out in their cabin or by the fire at night, playing with their dogs and making jokes about the Kardashians.

The film is beautifully lensed and narratively rich, debuting last year at the Telluride Film Festival. It has since received a limited theatrical release and is available to stream online. In an interview with VFMahdavian goes into detail about the process of shooting the film, what surprised her in the editing room, and how the horses actually influenced the film’s aesthetic.

Vanity Fair: Bitterbrush felt very cinematic in terms of the visual language and the score. It was very beautiful. Talk to me about creating a documentary with that visual language.

Emelie Mahdavian: I went to film school, so I wanted to use the language of the medium. A lot of my development as an artist probably came from watching fiction films. So there were certain ideas that I wanted to get into the film through the cinematography. Ideas about finding ways to convey the sense of intimacy that they have with their work, a sense of intimacy and closeness with the animals. I edited the film, but I also brought on an editor [Curtiss Clayson] who’s a really accomplished fiction editor because I wanted it to feel like a piece of cinema, first and foremost.

Was a specific moment where you were like, “I am so glad my camera was rolling for this.”

Yeah! There’s a bunch of things that were unplanned, like the snowstorm. I awned derek [Howard, the cinematographer] I really wanted a snowy day. Then the forecast changed, and it was only a 10 percent chance of snow that morning and I was kind of soul-crushed. I was like, Oh, just get really close to her hat so we can see the little tiny flakes. I didn’t know what else to do. And then, boom! A white-out blizzard blows in the moment that he gets up on the horse to start following them. Those are those moments where you’re like, thank goodness that we just pushed forward anyway.

You’ve said that Derek was a “popsicle” by the end of the day.

Oh, he was, completely! He had on two pairs of gloves. It was truly a portrait in dedicated cinematography.

Watching the documentary introduced me to this kind of work in a new and tactile way. What would you say was the most technically impressive thing that you saw Colie and Hollyn do?

Something that maybe is alluded to in the film, but isn’t really super explicit is just how many days they’re getting on a horse that’s [only] got one or two rides on it and taking it out into the middle of nowhere to work. They are so confident in their skills and they have so much trust in each other that on any given day, it’s not that uncommon that one of them is on a horse that’s pretty skittish and doesn’t have a lot of rides on it. And they’re way out beyond reception. On phone satellite. The risk that they’re taking is an indication of how confident they are in their own ability.

I couldn’t even do one hour of what they do. Even just getting up on a horse, that would be my job of the day. You were eight months pregnant at the start of the shoot?

Yes, I was. I lived up there, so I was used to being at elevation and hiking and stuff, so I was just like, I’m going to just take a camera and make this movie. I knew it was the only time this was going to happen. It turned out to be a great point of connection because Hollyn has the same thing. She’s like, “I love what I do. I’m having a baby. How am I going to make this work?” And in the end, she does. If you’re really connected with a sense of purpose about what you do, you’re just not going to quit, you know? You are trying to make that work. And that was something we were both experiencing. So in an odd way, it was great.

I’m very late, but congratulations on becoming a mom!

Thank you! She talks now. [Laughs]

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