For a largely wordless documentary that follows sheep as they are herded up and down a mountain range, Sweetgrass has earned no shortage of praise from film critics. The New York Times called it “the first essential movie of this young year” — though that doesn’t make Sweetgrass any easier to watch. Billed as a warts-and-all look at the dying tradition of high-mountain shepherding in the American West, Sweetgrass is a glacially paced documentary that plods through footage that most filmmakers would consign to the cutting-room floor.
Four-minute silent takes of sheep staring at the camera? Check. Stark, clinical photography of lamb carcasses cut up by wolves and bears? Definitely. Cinéma vérité scenes of sheepherders snoring, urinating, and crying through calls home on cellphones? By the truckful.
Though it’s not made explicit, the film is an account of the last group of herders to drive their sheep up Montana’s Beartooth Mountains in 2001. Set in an epic, sprawling landscape, it follows the men on a 150-mile summertime drive through jagged ravines, dealing with attacks on their sheep by wolves and bears. It’s clear the filmmakers’ sympathies are with the sheep, showing them in long takes that may strain even the attention spans of art-house patrons.
Trained as anthropologists, husbandand-wife filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor tried to make a very different type of documentary that seeks “to put humans in a much larger, ecological matrix.” In an interview with Pasatiempo, Castaing-Taylor said, “We kind of repress our animality in our daily lives. We like to think we are not animals.”
The film is also a not-so-subtle jab at the storytelling conventions of documentaries. “I hate documentaries. I can’t watch most of them. They are so predictable. They set up some victim group, and we liberal spectators are supposed to come up with solutions. There’s some tension, some plot; we go away feeling good,” said Castaing-Taylor.
According to the filmmakers, the owner of the sheep herd solicited the help of a New Yorker who owned a nearby ranch to film the dying days of the sheep drive. That New York dude rancher brought Barbash and Castaing-Taylor into the mix, and what resulted is light years away from anything Ken Burns produces.
Sweetgrass works against the grain of most documentaries, abandoning narration and even the most rudimentary outlines of a plot in favor of raw footage that goes largely unexplained. In the film’s opening scenes, sheep are grabbed and sheared by wranglers, who communicate in grunts. With only a few words of explanation, the coat of a dead lamb is cut and stretched across another lamb so the mother will raise it as its own. The lack of voices, text, or even context is bewildering, an effect that the filmmakers say parallels how we come to grips with the unknown in real life. “We wanted people to muddle though the struggle and make sense of it on their own,” Castaing-Taylor said.
In practice, what this means for the viewer is that, with one or two notable exceptions, they get to hear humans speak about as often as the sheep do. There is no Morgan Freeman voice-over lending grandeur and dignity to the march of the sheep across mountains. Instead, the film’s narrative vehicle is familiar to anyone who was taught to swim by being thrown into a pool. Figure it out or sink. “We don’t live life with a voice-over commentary,” Castaing-Taylor said. “The documentary always privileges people. It seems tied to superficial engagement with people, their daily woes — there’s all these structures. There must be some sort of problem and then a resolution at the end.”
If there is a climax to Sweetgrass, it comes more than halfway through the film, when one of the herders breaks down after the sheep head the wrong way up a gully. Beginning with the immortal phrase, “You are as worthless as tits on a bull hog,” the scene builds to a one-man Greek chorus of profanity that even Tony Soprano could not top. In an entirely unprintable monologue, the cowboy proceeds to assail the sheeps’ virtue, sexuality, decency, and fitness to live on Earth. As the camera pans to the jagged crags of the Beartooth Mountains, the sublime and the profane are joined in one moment that makes straining through an hour’s worth of lumbering sheep almost redeemable. “Sweetgrass” opens Friday, May 7, at The Screen, College of Santa Fe, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive. Director Lucien Castaing-Taylor hosts a Q & A following the screenings on May 7 and Saturday, May 8. Tickets are $8 to $9.50; call 473-6494.