Sweetgrass takes on the mythology of the American West as it observes a seasonal last roundup of sheep by ranchers in Montana. Sometimes lyrical, mostly deliberately literal, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary makes no concessions to anyone’s marketing department. Festivals will be eager to show the film as a new generation’s take on ethnography.
This isn’t a nature film, nor is it an environmental hymn and it will test the theatrical audience’s appetite for films about animals or for extreme anti-westerns. Its most logical niche will be the museum circuit (portions of the footage were already shown in art galleries) and cable television. Its observation of the last event of its kind in the US gives it a special claim on the home video and educational markets.
Castaing-Taylor’s film starts with hundreds of sheep. In one of its memorable shots, one animal stares right into the camera as she notices the film-maker’s presence but there’s no attempt to ‘humanize’ the livestock after that. We see sheep being shorn in a minute by electric sheers and lambs piled up on each other after they are born on a barn floor.
The camera then opens up into the stunning Montana mountains, now a getaway for some Hollywood glitterati, and ranch families set out on what they have done for more than a century, herding sheep to pastures more than a hundred miles away, and then back. The sheep aren’t just in the landscape, they are the landscape, an epic column covering entire valleys and mountainsides like abstract patterns on a vast canvas. And they often prove harder to rein in than actors in epics of comparable grandeur.
Sweetgrass is also a documentary about people who have made this journey before. There’s an odd intimacy as tender and profane ranchers discuss their work in the most minimal of dialogue. Castaing-Taylor doesn’t folklorize the process, as in the 2008 Kazakh feature Tulpan, in which sheep also outnumber people, to which Sweetgrass will inevitably be compared.
Castaing-Taylor calls his role in shooting this process over three summers that of a recordist. He disputes any notion that his observational film is directed. Deft editing of countless hours of footage (and colourizing) undermine that claim. Part of the film’s appeal is its sheer logistical achievement. To film sheep scaling those mountains, Castaing-Taylor needed to be there, operating the camera.
There is still much that is iconically ‘western’ in Castaing-Taylor’s mold-breaking elegy. When one rancher sits at the top of a mountain on horseback – a scene that conjures up a century of the West on the screen — he complains on a mobile phone to his mother about the ‘fucking sheep’ and his own aches and pains.