Weekend Review: Sweetgrass, Dir. by Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor
In the spirit of Berenice Abbott's photography of a quickly disappearing New York in the 1930s, or any other WPA photographer for that matter, the film Sweetgrass, directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, pants a filmic portrait of a very specific time and place; one that is coming to an end. Filmed over the course of three years, it provides a glimpse into the days of one Montana family's sheep ranch and their disappearing way of life. Opening on a winter scene, we follow the sheep and the ranchers who care for them through a year, through shearing, lambing, driving the herd up the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture, and bringing them back home again for the last time.
We don't hear a human voice until a good 30 minutes into the film and the focus remains on long meandering shots of the animals, the landscape, and the men at work. There is no voice over, there are no interviews, the camera remains an unacknowledged capturer of these moments. The goal here is very simply to record the daily lives of these individuals (both human and ovine) before they have passed. Not that there aren't issues presented for discussion. Many questions were raised for me (for example: the environmental impact of such a large herd grazing on public land, whether or not their way of ranching is "standard," and the hows and whys of some of the treatment of the animals), but the film refrains from making any overt judgment. It allows the viewer to absorb and ponder. To discuss and to mull over.
I do think that the filmmakers make an honest effort to show both a sympathetic and a more critical view of these men and their lifestyle in an attempt at an unbiased presentation. For example, a drawn out shot of the herd in which a sheep urinates for what seems like forever is followed shortly by a similarly composed and timed shot of one of the ranchers urinating. A clear parallel is being drawn here in what seems to be an attempt to allow the viewer to see man and beast as similar. They're in this thing together. On the flip side, we are shown a jarring scene in which the sheep have descended into a valley (where the ranchers, clearly, do not want them to go) and we are witness to the rancher's frustration as he calls the sheep every foul word in the book. It's hard for us to sympathize with him though, because there is a real disconnect between the audio and the video elements of the scene. The rancher is wearing a wireless mic and we hear him as if he's standing right next to the camera, but the visual we see is the herd being rounded up in an incredibly long shot in which the camera appears to be on the top of a different mountain and the sheep in the valley look to be small white dots on the landscape. We don't see the rancher at all and this makes it hard for the viewer to understand where he is coming from or the trial that this situation clearly is causing and he ends up seeming a bit harsh.
The film is slow, which may make it hard for many viewers to enjoy. But, I think it's a really interesting peak into a way of life that is so very different from my own and those are the filmic experiences that I find the most valuable.