Husband and wife anthropologists Ilisa Barash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor capture the 200-mile overland journey of two cowboys (their word) who herd an unspecified but massive number of sheep through the scenic Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Sweetgrass is at once a document of a dying tradition (sheepherding) and a formal treatise on our growing distance from the practices that sustain us now and historically. Seen from a distance, the sheep are adorable, prosaic and as easy to romanticize as the Rocky Mountains they pass through. Up close, they’re bleating and dirty and nothing like the cotton-ball effigies we made of them in elementary school. And the sheep aren’t the only thing that goes through relationship reformation—avoiding the title “shepherd,” the men who herd this army can’t be further from Mary or Little Bow Peep. Numbers will be small as this non-narrative doc, however fantastic it is, was basically built for life in the educational market.
In the first few moments of the film we see the fleecing that prepares the sheep for their journey. Sheerers bully the sheep that look half complacent to the task and half frightened by the small sheering floor and brusque handling. They leave with roughly cut coats. When lambs are born, still sticky from the womb, handlers drag them across the barn floor to lure the mother to contained hay beds. Orphan lambs are thrown on top of each other to see if new mothers are willing to take on other lambs. None of this is explained—no Transatlantic voice of god enters audio to clarify the what or the why, it’s all face value. When the flock leaves the ranch en route to the mountains, their guardians trail the forceful herd through a main street complete with a Radio Shack and general store (a more direct contrast of modern and ancient commerce you’ll likely not find), where we can see these not so darling sheep are a force to be reckoned with. Their reckoners are a mercurial little team: John, the younger, takes to venting his frustrations on the flock verbally while Pat, the elder, speaks to them in sing-song and calls them his “girls.” His waking call: “Good morning, sheep” sounded like the reason these filmmakers thought the grass was sweet.
Much like the visual anthropology of the early ’60s and ’70s, the film has a real attention to neutrality, which lends some startling effect to the experience of seeing such iconic creatures, vocations and landscapes in varying states of undress. The unspeakably beautiful mountains and the violent predators that live therein become the force eroding the strong and direct cowboys. The sheep they tend—sometimes with affection sometimes with animosity—are brutish and raw, their bleats barely seem reducible to cute cartoon impersonations, often sounding like the actual, guttural sounds of descent. Which is ironic because sheep aren’t really known for that.
Perhaps it would have forced a point for Barbash and Castaing-Taylor to tell us why this tradition is dwindling to death, but it’s truer to the film’s anthropological intentions that we not know the why and the how, when what we are given is so fraught with necessity and so wedged between rock and a marketplace.
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Producer: Ilisa Barbash
Running time: 101 min.
Release date: January 6 NY