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Film Review


There have been so many more good documentaries in the past ten years, partially because the availability of small, high definition digital video cameras make location shooting much cheaper and easier than with conventional film. A good example is this wonderful, lyric film, Sweetgrass, that takes us on the last of the major sheep drives to summer pasture in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, both filmmakers and anthropologists, married to each other, with two children, spent three years in Montana at a sheep ranch, shooting over 200 hours of footage, and from that have constructed a beautiful and fascinating film about the last sheep drive in that area. Traditionally, sheep ranchers would drive their animals to the mountain pastures in the summers, but finally the habitat destruction caused by the sheep's grazing habits persuaded the BLM to stop issuing permits. This ended a practice little changed from the 19th Century, so that Sweetgrass is really an elegy for a vanished part of American rural life.

The film opens with scenes at a sheep ranch, including shearing, castrating (just close your eyes for a moment), and birthing. The birthing scenes are astonishing, especially the cowboys helping the sheep deliver. And in one case, where the mother will not accept a lamb, the men wrap the new born in a lambskin from her lamb that died, and trick the mother into letting him nurse. Some of the cameras are on the ground at eye level with the sheep, which gives us a sheep's eye view. A few curious sheep look directly into the camera and seem to want to audition. Mostly they are skittish. Late spring has come, and it is time to begin moving the herd of 3000 sheep to the mountains. The herd flows through a small town's main street like a huge woolen river, with a few people on the sidewalk watching. The sheepdogs are truly amazing to watch, each doing what would take two men, and worth the entire film to see. Then they begin to climb into the mountains, and control becomes more difficult because of rushing streams and difficult terrain. There is a hilarious (to us) sequence where they begin to head in the wrong direction, and one cowboy begins to curse them: you g--d--, m-- f-- sheep, and more. They pass small herds of mountain goats climbing up impossibly steep outcrops. But finally reach the summer pastures and the two cowboys detailed to spend the summer begin to unpack. This is wilderness, with the real worry of wolf and bear attacks on the sheep. Although the scenery is magnificent, it's lonely up there. One cowboy even begins to cry out of frustration and loneliness while talking to his mother on his cell phone. But summer is soon over, and the sheep have to be moved down the mountain, back to the ranch for the winter. The total journey will have covered nearly 150 miles.

Like a Frederick Wiseman film, there is no narrative or voiceover, with the only sound provided by the conversation of the cowboys, the sheep, and the wind. There is such wilderness splendor and beauty here, yet the loneliness is palpable. And a sadness, as we know that this piece of rural life has already ended. Sweetgrass is tightly edited, and never slow or boring. My only criticism is that some of the long distance pans seemed slightly out of focus. I loved this film, and was grateful for the chance to see it in a theater (January in NY). I feared it would not be picked up for distribution, but it is opening this Friday for one week at the Lumiere, with the filmmakers scheduled to be there on Friday and Saturday. Don't miss this gem of a film.

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