A Western with range

Two women move cattle in Idaho’s backcountry in Bitterbrush, showing at the Panida June 17-19

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

In one of the trailers for Emelie Mahdavian’s 2021 documentary Bitterbrush, Hollyn Patterson works with a colt as her fellow range rider, Colie Moline, watches, perched on sun-bleached wood of the round pin.

“I’ve always loved starting colts,” Patterson remarks.

A screenshot from the film Bitterbrush playing at the Panida Theater this weekend. Courtesy photo.

“Yeah,” Moline offers, their conversation carrying a cadence like a seasoned horse navigating a familiar meadow.

“I’m just starting to love other things,” Patterson adds, continuing the walk slow half-circles around the skittish colt.

Bitterbrush — showing at the Panida Theater from Friday, June 17-Sunday, June 19 — tells the story of the pair’s last summer herding cattle together in a remote corner of Idaho hill country. This scene is quiet — Patterson and the colt shuffle through the pin, birds offer the occasional chirp and a gentle breeze picks up on the camera’s mic. The weather-worn fencing of the pin and surrounding green grass give way to brown mountains and gray clouds in the background.

“God has taught me more about myself working a horse than I’ve ever taught a horse,” Moline shares from her perch.

“That’s true,” Patterson replies.

The quiet resumes and the breeze plays at the women’s hair, loose beneath wide-brimmed Western hats, and at the horse’s mane — a white blonde, inspiring her name, Marilyn.

Bitterbrush turns any traditional understandings of toughness or femininity on their heads, as is shown in this short scene with the colt. Vulnerable conversations are meant for this space, where the rawness of life is on full display. 

Rural people already knew that the machismo of the Western genre was just for show — a fictional tale told over and over. She is Mother Nature, after all, and Patterson and Moline are humble stewards of her greatness, navigating the peaks and valleys of the range with their horses, trusty cattle dogs and a whole lot of hard-earned skill.

Filmmakers promise a story of “friendship” in Bitterbrush, all the while highlighting the “inclement weather and perilous work conditions” in which the women find themselves. Tenderness and brutality are not at odds in this landscape, but all at once necessary.

Critics have shared a general sense of shock at the depth Bitterbrush is able to convey through the telling of a two-character story, with The Playlist calling it “a subtle portrayal of non-sensational humanity.” On Mahdavian’s chops as a storyteller, IndieWire praises her “keen eye for capturing the contradictions and complexities of outsider women’s lives.”

The cattle, horses and working dogs of Bitterbrush depend on these “outsider women” just as the pair depend on them. It’s the symbiotic relationship of a mother and child, a horse and rider, earth and rain. It’s a story older than film, and more prominent than the genre would have you believe.

Bitterbrush is womanhood captured in the most unexpected, but fitting, way. In the evolving story of the West, this documentary fills a vital role.

Bitterbrush (NR) • Friday, June 17, 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 18, 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 19, 2:30 p.m.; doors open 30 minutes before each showing; $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Panida Theater, 300 N. First Ave., 208-263-9191. Get tickets at panida.org or at the door.

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