The Sunrise Ceremony (na’ii’ees) is an Apache coming-of-age ritual. During the ceremony, young women seek strength, courage, wisdom and goodness from the first woman, referred to as the White Painted Woman. A recent western, Painted Woman, draws on the legends associated with the ritual to tell the story of Julie Richards, a woman who overcomes abuse and forced prostitution.

Early on, Julie lands at the feet of Kyle Allison, a wealthy powerbroker of the old west town of Goldfield, who takes young Julie into his home and makes her his trophy, a life of abuse in a disconcertingly luxurious setting. After Allison discards Julia, she sets out on her own to find her inner strength while living in the shadow of two very different men – Frank Dean, a hired assassin working for Allison, and Vince Wagner, a wayward horse trainer with a dark past.

Based upon the novel The Mustanger and the Lady by the late Dusty Richards, a prolific novelist from Northwest Arkansas, Painted Woman is directed by Fort Smith native James Cotten and produced by NWA resident Amber Lindley. The pair adapted the novel into a screenplay. Painted Woman premiered in 2017 and won Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress at the Wild Bunch Film Festival, Best Romance at the Alaskan Film Awards and Best Director at the Manchester International Film Festival (U.K.), where it was chosen as the opening film. It was also selected as a Spotlight Film at Bentonville Film Festival. It stars Stef Dawson, Matt Dallas, David Thomas Jenkins and Kiowa Gordon.

With beautiful cinematography, a gentle score, and moving performances, it is hard to believe Painted Woman was made on a small (undisclosed) budget, but Cotten, a veteran of independent filmmaking, knows how to stretch a dollar. Additionally, some production decisions helped bring authenticity to the film. Lindley credits Brian Allison, the boss wrangler of the horses, as one of their best decisions. Allison and his crew have done many films including Tombstone and Lonesome Dove. Not only did he bring experience, but also period-correct saddles, costumes, hats, shoes, badges, wagons, props, and horses.

“He was of the most valuable people we employed because he came with all this knowledge and experience; his own network and horses; and was very willing to work with us,” Lindley says.

They shot in Guthrie, Oklahoma, a town largely untouched from the early twentieth century. While it is a larger town than in the novel and in the original script, the production team adjusted to that. According to Lindley, “We made the choice to go with tall buildings, rather than just a row of wooden shacks with a main street down the middle to give it a larger feel.”

Cotten adds, “Guthrie is kind of a museum town – all the interiors are established and you don’t have to build anything. Just rent it and it’s right there in front of you. The way you stretch a dollar in independent film is to find places that add to the production value that come in lower or package costs.  We were able to pull off so much that we might not have been able to do otherwise.”

In the film, Dawson provides a powerful performance as Julia, bringing an ethos to the character that might be lost in less skilled hands.  Her chemistry with Thomas Jenkins, who plays Wagner, is undeniable. Cotten has crafted a remarkable story about a woman finding her place in a hostile world.

Cotten says, “One thing Amber and I talked about early on is that the book Dusty wrote is about a man and woman coming together and the man protecting the woman – a classic western John Wayne type film.  We wanted to flip that and tell the story about a woman who’s overcoming the elements of the West. I thought that was special – to tell a western from the point of view of not a damsel-in-distress but rather maybe a damsel-in-distress who learns not to be one by the end of the picture – a real female empowerment movie in a time where was not much female empowerment. And that’s something you can really grab onto and make interesting.”

Painted Woman is now available purchase on DVD in Barnes & Noble, WalMart or Amazon; for streaming on iTunes, Vudu, GooglePlay, and Amazon Prime; or Video-on-Demand on Direct TV.