November 7, 2010 -- “Sweetgrass” is a film that captured a way of life that has largely vanished from America, a sheep drive into the summer pastures of the high mountains at the top of America. It features grand vistas, rugged mountains, a huge herd of sheep and the cowboys who trail the sheep and protect them from attacks by grizzly bears and other animals. The film is raw, unsentimental and unvarnished. There is little dialogue and most of that is profane. The only music is that of a cowboy singing. It depicts a way of life as foreign to urban dwellers as the life of jungle tribesmen in Africa.
Filmed mostly in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana, and on the Allested Sheep Ranch near Big Timber Montana, the film shows lambing operations, sheep shearing and the rigors of animal husbandry on a big scale, as well as the epic sheep drive. The drive goes right down the main street of Big Timber (in Sweetgrass County, hence the film's name) and up paved and gravel roads into the mountains. The terrain gets progressively rougher and steeper until we see the sheep trailing up and down mountains that look impossibly steep. One cowboy, talking on a mobile phone to his mother, complains that he can't take his eye off the sheep for a minute, or they will scatter. His knee hurts, his sheepdogs are foot sore, and he's had enough of these hard-headed, wandering sheep. In frustration, he curses the sheep and throws rocks at them. The main cameraman on the drive, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, suffered “trauma-induced advanced degenerative arthritis” from the rigors of the drive, and from carrying a lot of heavy camera equipment around.
While the younger cowboy makes the job look hard, an older cowboy, John Ahern, makes it look a lot easier. He sings to the sheep and talks to them in a soothing voice. He talks to his horse “watch your step” and to the sheep dogs. He doesn't talk much to people, but he seems a lot more talkative when he's herding the sheep in solitude. He takes naps during the day when he can. He seems to be at ease with himself and has adapted well to this life. The only time he seems unsure is when he's asked what he'll do next, now that there won't be any more sheep drives. Ahern's face, creased and worn, reveals no emotion. He says he's not going to worry about his future for a couple of weeks, at least.
There is quite a lot of footage shot under light conditions that are very marginal, if not downright poor. Some night scenes are filmed in infrared. Some night scenes show bears and guns being fired at them by cowboys. The cowboys also discuss what may have been a wolverine attack. They say a wolverine is the only animal the dogs would be afraid of. The camera shows the rugged mountains in all their massive magnificence, as well as the claustrophobic tangle of trees when some of the sheep get cut off from the herd and are caught in a dense forest and steep terrain. The film seems to follow the life cycle of sheep for about one year from shearing in the spring, the summer drive, back to the ranch in the fall and winter feeding.
This is an educational film, as one would expect from the involvement of Ilisa Barbash, who is “a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor is director of Harvard’s new Sensory Ethnography Lab, and a professor of Visual & Environmental Studies and of Anthropology.” But it is also entertaining at the same time, despite its slow pace and general lack of dialogue and music. It is plain, but strong. This film rates a B.
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