Sweetgrass (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
viewed: 08/17/10

Sweetgrass is an ethnographic documentary about sheep-herding cowboys in Montana.  The visual anthropology/ethnographic documentary angle (a film style or approach that reaches back to Nanook of the North (1922)) is that the film attempts to capture a long-standing practice by Norwegian-American sheep ranchers, driving their flock of 3000 sheep through public lands in Montana over the summer months, allowing them to graze, and then bringing them back in for the winter.  And while that practice and agreement went back for generations, the film documents the final trip in which these cowboys took these sheep across the public lands, having worked an agreement with an environmental group to no longer follow the practice for a number of reasons.  So, the documentarians looked to capture something culturally significant and unique.

What’s most amazing about the film is its attempt to capture and not to overtly comment on the events or to illuminate them or instruct about them.  There is no narration, no music, no intertitles (until the very end).  What the audience is given is the imagery.  The sheep themselves, the cowboys themselves, the amazing Montana mountainous landscapes, and the actualities of their work, shearing sheep, birthing sheep, caring for the dogs and horses and mules with which they work, building their tepee tents, fending off bears, and struggling through the long summer with long days and challenged sleep.

The challenge of photography or documentary filmmaking is that of objectivity or the attempt at objectivity.  Sweetgrass was made by a husband and wife team, who both work at Harvard University in the field of cultural anthropology, so the dedication to a non-intrusive scientific recording of the people and events is a clear goal.  However, one of the great truths about such an endeavor is that objectivity is impossible, challenged from every selection of a shot, framing of an image, editing of a series of scenes.  Objectivity can be striven for but is a bit of an illusion.

Well, those are the philosophical facts about the approach, but what is achieved is no less remarkable.

Clearly, a film about sheep-herding in Montana, with only incidental dialogue, no real narrative, no music, no instruction than the images and sounds recorded, is not going to be a film that everyone will gladly sit through, much less enjoy.   But to me, it is just short of amazing.  The experience of the film is amazing, immersing and involving, almost Impressionistic it’s so experiential.  While it’s not “like being there”, one is forced to work one’s way through the scenes and images, make sense of them, feel and interpret them.  It’s a singular experience.

What’s also interesting is listening to the directors’ commentary for the film afterward because there is so much information that they have, facts about the sheep, about the historical significance of the sheep run, realities of the events (things you cannot know just from the images).  It’s very enlightening.  But it’s enlightening after having seen the film and experienced it directly.  It illuminates the complex nature of documentary, of how adding facts, stating facts, offering insights to instruct the viewers more, how changing that is to the interpretation of the whole.  At first, I was merely a little curious to hear what the filmmakers would say, but as it wore on, I became more and more interested in hearing about their process.

For a film about Montana sheep-herding cowboys, you could almost joke that it’s like Brokeback Mountain (2005) without the gay love story.  It is the milieu.  But more than anything, it’s a very pure form of documentary, something strangely beautiful and striking, grand but not grandiose.  It’s really quite something.