Anna Koch and Julia Lemke direct an intriguing but meandering film that could have spent more time getting to know its subjects
Arizona is a terrain designed for film, rugged and otherworldly, stretching on in unsettling orange hues. Anna Koch and Julia Lemke use this setting to great effect in their documentary Glitter and Dust, which follows a group of young cowgirls who compete as bull riders. Frequently they interrupt sequences of the fraught competition with shots of the empty landscape, quietly suggesting the pointlessness of trying to wrestle this chunk of nature into a manageable shape.
This remains the central question at the heart of this documentary, and perhaps all extreme sports documentaries: with so much to lose, what is there to be gained? What do they do it for? What are they chasing after? Koch and Lemke’s job is to unearth the unspoken answer, one hidden beneath the parroted ideals of family tradition and expectation. It is unclear if they ever settle on an answer that feels pertinent or fully realised, but there are flashes of clarity in the silent beats between parent and child, brother and sister.
In one particularly lovely exchange Altraykia Begay is practising on a barrel rocking back and forth, acting as a makeshift bull, when the camera settles on her and her trainer, facing one another in front of the setting sun, focus on the barrel. In holding their shared exuberance in frame, we are treated to a moment of real community, a justifiable reason to want to pursue such a dangerous sport. Similarly, there is a moment where Maysun King is playing with her friends after one of the competitions, dodging a boy pretending to be a bull, a light reprieve in the place they love.
Yet something that would benefit the story is a clearer understanding of space. The bull-riding ring is presented as an almost mythical area, bathed in harsh floodlights, haunting the everyday lives of these girls. It isn't entirely clear where anyone is situated in relation to one another, the history of this sport and their long-term proximity to it largely underdeveloped. In failing to explore this the film seems to suggest that it is more interested in the spectacle of the sport than the young women participating.
Perhaps the most compelling arc belongs to nine-year-old Ariyana, desperate to be a successful bull rider despite being repeatedly belittled by her overbearing father. After she is finished with her round in the competition, the camera follows her as she removes her cowboy boots, stretching and squeezing her feet methodically, checking for broken bones. It is a good reminder that what happens in the ring is a performance, that real life cannot continue to coil around those few seconds indefinitely. Occasional moments of greatness dapple Glitter and Dust, but its meandering perspective stops it from being wholly engaging.
Glitter and Dust is showing on True Story from 22 July.Where to watch