Count­ing Sheep

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

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.

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