‘Bitterbrush’ Profiles the Lives of Two Female Cattle Ranchers With Immersive Detail

Director Emelie Mahdavian’sBitterbrush” follows two female cattle ranchers, Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, as they herd cattle amid the majestic landscapes of rural Idaho. There is a serenity to the film that allows the audience to feel the sensation of spending days traversing plains and mountain sides, where a rugged form of work seems to bring its subjects a special kind of satisfaction. That’s the documentary on the surface. Mahdavian assembles moments and images into an elegy for an American way of life that still faces the challenges of new times. It is also a genuine portrait of two women and their work. Most anyone can relate to it: If we like what we do it’s simply a part of us. 

The intimacy of “Bitterbrush” stems from how personal the material is to the filmmaker. “I met Hollyn at my neighbor’s house for dinner while I was living in rural Idaho. I didn’t initially see a narrative. I met this incredibly witty, charming character and over time while thinking about different film ideas, I came back to her. It became about spending time talking to her, meeting Colie and figuring out what mattered to them. I realized this was going to be a unique summer, watching these two friends work together.” When we first meet the two women, they are gearing up for a long trek to a particular campsite where they will live while herding the cattle off a mountain range. As they ride horses through gorgeous landscapes and carry out their duties, the two women also open about life. Colie dreams of owning her own ranch. Her father wants her to come back home, but she wants independence and livestock. A major challenge is the economic landscape, which can be brutal for someone who doesn’t already own land. Hollyn is the one in a relationship, but her male partner is more of a cameo in the documentary, appearing here and there to lend support or help apply medication to a calf.

“As the two women discussed the challenges of ranching and their hopes for a family, overlapping themes began to appear while following them around,” says Mahdavian. Her approach has the feeling of the audience becoming part of the journey. Nothing is rushed and Mahdavian lets the camera follow a ride through snow-capped hills or open prairie. We hear conversations large and small. Facts are never splashed across the screen because “Bitterbrush” isn’t meant to be “educational,” but informative in the purest sense. It wants to let us feel what a day is like for a range rider. “I wanted to be able to dive into the landscape and part of the experience is kind of slowing down the style. I knew that was a risk, this isn’t a James Bond film. Making it kinetic wouldn’t have been true to what their lives are like. The logistics of shooting were certainly complicated because the area itself isn’t accessible by car. You can get to the margins but the rest has to be on horseback. I think if I didn’t live out there or had hiked those mountains before, I would not have been able to pre-visualize in the same way what the work would entail.”

“Bitterbrush” is also a reminder of how our pace of life can be so radically different depending on where one resides. Unlike city dwellers, Hollyn and Colie do a job that requires skill and focus, but is marked by the slower passing of the hours and a deeper connection to the land. Major news, like Hollyn discovering she is pregnant, can arrive in the silence of a text message. They trust God will provide in their lives and feel shy when cussing out loud at a dog running wild. “None of those things, like Hollyn’s pregnancy, were of course not planned, or moments where Colie discusses the death of her mom. That was Colie deciding to tell her story. I don’t know if those count as ‘happy accidents,’ but they were certainly not scripted. There’s also a snowstorm, which I wanted because it’s such an integral part of living out there. You think it’s going to be 80 degrees and then it’s raining. I didn’t know with such limited shooting days, if I would get snow. That morning it had gone down from an 80 percent chance of snow to 10. But we got snow and it was actually a total whiteout blizzard. The cinema gods smiled on me at that moment (laughs).”

It’s easy to escape into a documentary like “Bitterbrush,” which doesn’t need bombastic moments or scenes to get the human experience across. Some documentaries are priceless because of how they provide a snapshot of existence. Hollyn and Colie are now preserved forever on film with their hopes and banter. The final moments are bittersweet as the two friends experience life changes that divert their paths. Hollyn has to focus on being a mother while Colie finds work on other ranches. They speak on the phone for updates on each other’s progress. It’s a wonderful way to frame how we meet people through our work who stay connected to us, possibly for life. “These two women are really like gig laborers,” says Mahdavian. “They’re in an unstable economy that’s short term. That’s not that different from the average Uber driver. But a difference is how these two women have a deeper connection to this specific culture. This is how they grew up. They want to see this culture continue and be a part of it. Recognizing that ranching isn’t monolithic is something I hope people notice. Here we have these two women who are excellent at what they do and it would be nice to see them be the face of this work. There isn’t just this one big thing called the beef industry. For these women it matters if it’s their dad’s ranch that’s surviving versus some big corporation taking over all the land.”

Bitterbrush” releases June 17 in select theaters.