by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, 101 minutes
Hailed by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis as the “first essential movie” of 2010, the documentary Sweetgrass is the cinematic equivalent of the adage “Still waters run deep.” The first ten minutes or so of the film are human-less and shot mostly from a sheep’s viewpoint. The score is provided by bleating, shuffling sheep as they eat, run around, and give birth.
The film’s humans first appear in shearing season, as ranch hands roughly pin one sheep after another. The sheep, which bleat incessantly in the pasture, are silent and nearly motionless during the shearing process, and the noise of man and his machines takes over.
And yet, even when the cowboys are yelling and the sheep are bleating, the movie remains quiet in a way. Shifting between chaotic bursts of scrambling sheep, snippets of everyday conversation, and silent wide-angle shots of the stunning Montana scenery, Sweetgrass is, at its core, a meditation on the cycles and rhythms of life, human and otherwise.
Husband-and-wife filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor spent a total of eight years making Sweetgrass, with the goal of capturing a ranching family’s (the Allesteds) last summer sheep drive in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range, in 2003. The Allesteds, like many family ranchers, have had a permit to graze their sheep on the federal lands in the neighboring mountains for generations. In 2003, the Bureau of Land Management stopped giving grazing permits in the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains, as well as several other ranges, closing the book on a chapter of American ranching history.
Not that any of this is made clear in the film, until the very end when a few sentences are thrown up on the screen. Like the sheep, and their herders, viewers need to find their own ways through this film, slowly and with patience. It’s this same patience that humans need to have with nature in general, a point that Sweetgrass illustrates not via a voiceover or an interview, but through the juxtaposition of a seasoned cowboy and a young and impatient herder – both of whom the filmmakers follow through the mountains that fateful summer.
The two are also emblematic of the old way of life versus the new way on the American range. The older man, John Alhern, rolls with the punches; he naps when he can, smokes constantly, and wakes in the middle of the night to protect his sheep from a bear, without so much as a grumble. Close-ups of his hands and face focus in on age spots and deep lines, earned by many seasons out on the range. The younger man, Pat Connolly, loses patience when his sheep leave the valley he’s led them to and run up a cliff, forcing him to chase after them. Cursing at the sheep and then whining to his mother on his cell phone, he seems out of touch with the environment around him. In a way, he is the modern American everyman, pissed off that he can’t control nature.
At the end of the film, as the two men herd their sheep home for the last time, Connolly whoops and hollers like a school kid on graduation day, while Alhern just sits somberly, smoking. When asked what he’s going to do now, he says “I was planning on not worrying about it for a couple of weeks.”
To underscore the fact that they are merely recording their subjects, not imposing a story, the filmmakers opted not to include a “director” credit for Sweetgrass. Like all faithful documentaries, this one neither idolizes nor criticizes its subjects, but rather captures a particular moment in time and leaves it up to the viewer to interpret what that moment means.