Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review - Sweetgrass

You want sheep? You've got 'em in Sweetgrass. This movie has more sheep than you can shake a shepherd's crook at, the screen often being filled with a mass of bleating wool as thousands of the animals are driven across a mountain range. The film was shot in Montana some time in 2003 and it follows a group of herders as they round up their enormous flock and prepare for the arduous journey over the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. It is a tradition that has endured for over 100 years, but in Sweetgrass we are observing the ritual as it takes place for the last time, as the ranch in Sweetgrass County where the cowboys' journey began was shut down in 2004. This is a way of life coming to an end.

Not that you'd know all that from watching the film. Sweetgrass is deliberately free from context, giving us no backstory and no narration or interviews to guide us. If you search for a director credit at the end of the film you won't find one. The filmmaking team of Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor prefer the term 'recordist,' which does seem more appropriate for the work they have produced here. Sweetgrass is a pure piece of documentary filmmaking; it observes its subject and doesn't offer any editorialising or narrative beyond the natural progression of trek undertaken by the cowboys and the sheep. The pair shot thousands of hours worth of footage that they then edited down into this 100-minute feature. Imagine the patience it must have taken for them to collect and then work through this footage to find the finished film; you'll need a little of that patience yourself when watching Sweetgrass.

Long stretches of this movie consist of nothing more than sheep baaah-ing very loudly, but you get used to that, and after a while Sweetgrass starts to focus on the men more than the animals surrounding them. The party is led by grizzled old-timer John Ahorn and the younger Pat Connelly, and Sweetgrass shows them going about their business in all of its monotonous detail; trading jokes and stories, coordinating their enormous flock, and protecting it from nocturnal bear attacks. It's a tough business, and it takes its toll on Connelly, who is caught unleashing an astonishing (and highly amusing) foulmouthed rant against the uncooperative sheep. Later, we hear him phoning his mother from the top of a mountain and sharing his woes with her; "My knee's all screwed up! I need a day off" he complains, "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em."

There is much to enjoy in those mountains for the viewer. Sweetgrass is full of striking images of the beautiful and spectacular ranges and fields that these men and their sheep travel through. These sights would have been all the more impressive if Sweetgrass had been shot on film or a higher quality video than Barbash and Castaing-Taylor used, but it still captures the grandeur of the landscape. For many, that won't be enough, and Sweetgrass will appear unbearably slow and free of action for some viewers. In fact, considering the fact that I fell asleep during the similarly styled Le Quattro Volte, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Any chance of catching forty winks was denied by the constant soundtrack of bleating (no silence of the lambs here), and I found the style and rhythm of the movie oddly entrancing. I was also truck by the elegiac tone of the film towards the end, as these men finish their task for the final time and drive back to the ranch while wondering what the future holds for them in a rapidly changing world.