Bitterbrush on the open range

A- cinema verite
Directed by Emelie Mahdavian

Yes, there are real cowgirls – but probably not for long. Hollyn and Colie travel through what’s probably the least populated part of the American West – doing temporary work. Mostly, they herd cattle. And judging by Emelie Mahdavian’s documentary, these women know what they’re doing.

As the film begins, Hollyn and Colie are rounding up their horses and dogs and set out for a job far from the Internet. Living in an old cabin (not too bad; there is electricity), they set out to do their job: rounding 500 pairs of beef cattle in the Idaho mountains. Occasionally a man named Elijah joins them. It’s not clear, but I suspect he’s Hollyn’s boyfriend.

Bitterbrush is worth watching just for the scenery. There are majestic mountains, beautiful valleys, springtime flowers, and prairies covered with snow.

And then there’s the animals. The dogs are an important part of the gang, both as workers and as friends. Hollyn and Colie talk sadly about dogs that had to be put down. And then there are the horses. In the film’s best scene, Hollyn attempts to break in a young mare that they’d named after Marilyn Monroe (because of her blonde mane). This was the first time I saw someone breaking a horse in what looked like real time.

No one names the cows, of course, but they need to be cared for. A cow falls in bad weather, and must be taken care for. The scene was somewhat confusing. What exactly happened to the hurt cow? Was it worth helping her when there are hundreds around and we all know that these creatures aren’t raised to be pets. And yet a scene of a newly-born calf hits the heartstrings.

I’m always a bit wary about cinema verite. No one is truly natural when a film crew is looking at you. There are scenes of Hollyn and Colie far away from the camera, and I wondered where the microphones were. Did the visuals and the sound get recorded at the same time?

You learn to care about Hollyn and Colie as you watch the film. Their lives are changing, and this tough kind of life cannot last long. Both young women feel that their lives are going to change.

Bitterbrush opens Friday, June 17, at the Opera Plaza.