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Exclusive: Bitterbrush Director Emelie Mahdavian Discuss Her Gorgeous New Documentary

Emily Mahdavian saw life through focused new lenses when she moved to Idaho. She experienced a kind of detox from the constant cacophonous catastrophes of contemporary society, and was suddenly experiencing life at normal speed for the first time in a long time. The city’s sped-up, but when she lived in Idaho, she understood nature’s tempo. That’s partly why the filmmaker wished to make her new movie, Bitterbrush, which recently premiered to acclaim and quickly became a New York Times’ Critic’s Pick.

The film follows Mahdavian’s neighbors, though in rural country this sparse, neighbor might as well mean nobody. Fortunately, the documentarian was able to meet two fascinating young women, Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, range riders in the seasonal process of herding cattle. Mahdavian got acquainted with them during what would be their last summer on the job, and discovered that they were not just perfect conduits to express her fascination with the time-altering beauty of this landscape, but also incredible subjects themselves. Funny, tough, struggling, guarded, and resilient, Hollyn and Colie (and the massive natural splendor which dwarfs them) help make Bitterbrush one of the best documentaries of the year so far. Mahdavian sat down with us to discuss it.

Emelie Mahdavian Preps Her Documentary Bitterbrush

Pre-production was essential for Mahdavian, as it should be for most documentarians with human subjects to whom respect and concern should be given. She spent a good deal of time building trust, deciding what she’d want to do and say with the film, and discerning what the young range riders were passionate about. Mahdavian wanted to highlight and document their incredible work, and Bitterbrush exists as a kind of ‘fly on the wall’ look at their jobs and this season of their lives, if by ‘wall’ one means the achingly gorgeous, nearly endless beauty of the mountainous landscape. “I spent time just hanging out with them and chatting and finding out their life concerns,” Mahdavian tells us. She continues:

I do a lot of pre-production, actually. So even though it’s observational, I do think a lot about what can I plan, how do I want to frame it, what I want the stylistic choices to be, and what am I hoping to be present for if it happened. And then my philosophy is, having done that, then you can improvise, you can kind of adjust and hopefully get something that’s even richer because of what real life and what the women that you’re collaborating with have brought to the table.

Mahdavian spent around four months with the two women as the weather got icier and the cows lost weight. The aspect of time was extremely important for the filmmaker, as so much of Bitterbrush is meant to capture the natural rhythms of the land. Shots will last a seemingly interminable amount of time in one single take, going on until the movie becomes as mesmerizing as the landscape it captures. “I went into it with this kind of stated intention,” Mahdavian says, “I really wanted to make something that would be immersive and maybe could just help us kind of feel in a more visceral way what it’s like to live on that land, how it affects your sense of time.”

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Besides the lengthy takes and scenic imagery, the viewer is awash in the very sensory, experiential feel of the film thanks to the lack of didactic information like text, commentary or voiceover narration, or any audible questions the filmmaker might ask. “You know, the kind of explanatory elements like, potentially, voiceover,” Mahdavian says, “highly expositional elements, in a sense, work against that because they signal to the audience that this is going to be primarily about information, and that they can kind of sit back and digest it that way, and what I wanted them to do was sort of lean in and try to imagine themselves into the landscape with the women. So for that to be the response, I thought it made more sense to go with an approach that was trying to find tools of cinema to mirror what it feels like to be in this place.”

Bitterbrush Captures the Love Affair Between Time and Nature

What is it about “that place” which motivated Mahdavian (an accomplished filmmaker who has won a Peabody award for her work on Midnight Traveler with Hassan Fazili) to devote months to filming and even longer to production? “It’s like, it’s kind of sappy,” she laughs, “and I was trying to avoid making something sappy, but you know, there is that sort of perennial truth that any time that you get to spend in just a little bit of a slower pace, connecting with the natural world and the way the natural world changes your life, can be very transformative personally. Even if it does sound like something sappy that was probably in someone’s self-help book.” Mahdavian continues:

I wanted to try to play with that, but obviously that on its own isn’t enough to sustain the film, right? So then a lot of what ultimately shapes the structure, like the story arc of the film, is the stuff that’s coming from the human relationships and the human stories. But I wanted to see if I could succeed at [capturing] that feeling of waking up and not hearing any kinds of motors or machines, and only hearing just the wind or the birds or whatever it is that change seasonally and tell you a lot about what time it is today, about what part of the year it is. I found that I had been very psychologically and physically transformed by waking up in the morning, being cold, splitting wood, putting it in a wood stove, warming up over a cup of coffee. It was a sort of lack of pressure, and I wanted to see if I could get at that.

She certainly does. There are scenes in the film which seem to ritually invoke and summon up this life-transforming feeling of a return to nature, be it the lengthy training of a horse (or ‘breaking a colt’) or a slow trudge through thick snow and windy gusts on horseback. Time and nature come together wonderfully here, but they would be but a mere travelogue if not for the human subjects which perceive them, in this case Hollyn and Colie.

Like the cattle they herd, the two young women guide the film through its patient runtime. “I realized in talking to them, they work this hard, underpaid job in part because they love the culture, and they come from the culture, and in part because they also were really connected to that relationship with the land.”

Hollyn and Colie Are the Women of Bitterbrush

The two human subjects of the documentary (and the only people in the majority of Bitterbrush), Hollyn and Colie live a very different life from what culture generally perceives as ‘feminine,’ and their home-on-the-range, can-of-hash-over-an-open-fire lifestyle is jarringly incongruous for anyone with normative ideology about gender. It’s refreshing to see these incredibly ‘regular’ but determined and empowering women.

However, it’s even more refreshing that Mahdavian refuses to go out of her way to even acknowledge this. She does not make Bitterbrush about identity politics, and she never notes the aforementioned incongruity of seeing women do ‘this kind of work.’ Mahdavian does not shout at the viewer, and whatever politics comes from Bitterbrush is ultimately a projection.

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“I think there was a time for, like, shouting from the rooftops that certain things were going on which were sexist and wrong,” Mahdavian says. “But the problem with an approach that frames people only in terms of a dominant thing they’re struggling against is that it, of course, then puts them on their heels from the beginning and frames them as a kind of defensive, potentially disenfranchised non-subject. Like, that’s not how you wake up feeling in the morning. Nobody does, no matter what their kind of social positioning is.”

Mahdavian Paints Hollyn and Colie as Humans Without Labels in Bitterbrush

Mahdavian didn’t want to approach Hollyn and Colie from the perspective of people who would find it surprising to see two young female range riders, because Holly and Colie “are just so good at what they do,” and they don’t wake up thinking that their life is culturally incongruous. She goes on:

I didn’t want to frame them that way. I wanted to frame them the way they experience their world. And so in their day-to-day life, it’s unremarkable that they’re excellent at this. It’s like, it’s what they spent their life becoming excellent at. So of course, that they’re women is something the rest of us will notice and if it feels, you know, incongruous with our expectations — great […] Then it’s on us, not on them.

As such, if Bitterbrush has any politics or power of persuasion, it comes about through decisively refusing to be didactic about it. Instead of explaining class consciousness and what it’s like to be working class, or a woman in a rugged job, or the socioeconomics of range riders, the film lives with the experience itself. Bitterbrush is a quiet oasis in our noisy world, a beautiful documentary about nature (the very essence of nature) and the subtle dignity and strength of the people who are in tune with it. The hypnotic movie captures the passage of time in an almost spiritual but deeply humanistic way and, like Idaho did to Mahdavian, has the power to transform perception (if only fleetingly).

From Magnolia Pictures, and an official selection of the Telluride Film Festival and the MoMA Doc Fortnight, Bitterbrush is in select theaters and On Demand starting June 24th.

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