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A scene from Sweetgrass.
A scene from Sweetgrass.

Film Friday

Following the herd has its rewards Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Sweetgrass

  • Directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
  • Classification: 14A

A documentary of the last-ever sheep drive through Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, Sweetgrass occasionally feels in need of a shepherd. Or maybe a drama coach. Grizzlies attack the flock at night, dining on lamb. A cowboy chases off after them with a rifle, but filmmakers stay with the herd. Elsewhere, there is a bottleneck in a pass - a noisy, 3,000 sheep pile-up. Once again, the camera remains at the back, uninterested in getting in front of "the story."

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After a while, however, we understand that husband-and-wife filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor - Harvard anthropologists - aren't really interested in conventional drama. And that there are audience rewards for sticking with the herd and its lonesome cowboys.

For instance, a scene late in the drive, shot from atop a mountain, where we see tiny sheep wandering loose below - a white river curling around rocks - as their aggrieved shepherd, Pat Connolly, talks on a cellphone, bellyaching to his mother about how his knees hurt and he hasn't had a good night's sleep in forever and the sheep … hell, even his dog, never listens to a thing, he says.

As Pat continues whining, the camera drifts away; we enjoy a God's eye view of the world. Sky and stone go on forever. The complaining cowboy, the filmmakers seem to be saying, is but a single speck in a glorious universe that is almost completely indifferent to his suffering.

Sweetgrass is a study of man and animal struggling to make their way in the natural world. Cowboys sing to themselves, mumbling the words to Coming Down the Mountain when they do just that. They sing to their horses, dogs and sheep, too. And sheep call out to each other (in a subtle variety of inflections we eventually discover). After a while, we understand the voices, every one of them, repeat variations of the same phrase, "I'm alive, I'm alive."

Sweetgrass isn't exactly a cowboy movie, but it does have a star cowboy - John Ahern, a slow moving, chain-smoking (unfiltered rollies) drifter who is so accustomed to being alone that he answers every question with the same startled, "what?" as if he's been pulled from a prolonged sleep.

Montana sheep ranchers have been driving herds 150-some miles through the Beartooth range for over 100 years. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor attended the last three-month round-ups, from 2001-03, amassing more than 200 hours of documentary footage. The resulting film is an anthropological marvel and an animal-drive movie that belongs beside the classics of the genre - Red River and Lonesome Dove.

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