Since the late 19th century, sheep ranchers in Montana have driven their herds into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range to graze on the summer grass. Sweetgrass (Cinema Guild), a gorgeous and contemplative documentary by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, accompanies the last-ever sheep drives into the Beartooth range. The film, culled down from 200 hours of footage, was nine years in the making, and that unhurried pace is reflected in the results. It’s a movie that takes the viewer out of time, or rather places her in a different time, the cyclical time of herding and ranching, in which human and animal rhythms overlap and sometimes clash. Though Sweetgrass has moments of great beauty, the film is never nostalgic or idealizing about its human or ovine subjects. It shows the relationship of human and domesticated animal—and the relationship of both to nature—as a productive and symbiotic yet often brutal struggle.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, a married couple who are both anthropologists at Harvard, began filming the yearly sheep drives in 2001, returning in the off-season to document shearing and lambing season at the ranch. For the movie’s first half-hour or so, there is no human language at all, only the cacophonous (and surprisingly varied) sounds of bleating sheep as they graze, ruminate, huddle for warmth, and give birth. The first words, “Aw, shit, girl,” are spoken by a man to a sheep as he tries to persuade her to nurse an orphaned lamb. The movie is filmed in rigorous vérité style—no voiceover, no direct address to the camera. All the questions that come up while watching—Why is that newborn lamb being wrapped in another lamb’s skin? Is the wild animal menacing the herd at night a bear or a wolverine?—are answered not by intertitles or explanations but by unfolding events.
In the latter half of the movie, the focus shifts slightly in favor of the humans, as a veteran cowboy, John Ahern, and his younger companion, Pat Connolly, drive some 3,000 sheep up to the mountains to graze. These two men, with their horses and dogs, accompany the herd through stretches of punishingly steep terrain, stopping at night to set up their simple tents—just canvas stretched over tree branches—and cook on a stove that looks old enough to have come over with the pioneers. These camping scenes are what Brokeback Mountain might have been like if the leads weren’t gay, rarely spoke, and spent the majority of their time interacting with sheep. Along with moments of sheer misery—at one point, Pat calls his mother on his cell phone from the middle of nowhere and weeps from frustration and fatigue—there are glimpses of a pastoral way of life that’s as old as herding itself. When the irascibly crusty John naps under a tree with his hat over his eyes, ignoring Pat’s warnings about his sheep “getting by him,” he can’t help but evoke Little Boy Blue from the nursery rhyme, “under the haystack, fast asleep.”
The quality of the digital-video image is at times disappointingly muddy, but Castaing-Taylor’s camerawork is impressive, including a couple of sheep’s-eye-cam shots that must have involved him running crouched over with a hand-held camera in the midst of the surging herd. In the movie’s most unforgettable scene, the exhausted Pat unleashes a long stream of furious invective at the wayward animals—I can’t even tell you here the names he calls those @#$#&%! sheep—as the camera, looking down from a far-off peak at the abstract shapes created by the shifting herd, reminds us how tiny both man and beast are amid the immensity of nature. In that moment, one that’s hilarious, profound, and visually stunning all at once, Sweetgrass leaves behind the domain of ethnography and becomes a work of art.