In the beginning, there is sheep. Sheep grazing in a fluffy herd; one stares at the camera; does she register she’s being filmed…? The scene is slightly befuddling, yet entirely intimate. Then, the shearing and the birthing. And, only then, the men responsible for bringing the sheep to pasture, real-life cowboys. As we follow them along their 150-mile journey, taking the sheep to summer pasture through Montana’s breathtaking and often savage Beartooth Mountains, the frustrations mount–this is a way of life trapped between the past and an uncertain future. Without commentary, this astonishingly beautiful, yet unsparing nonfiction film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, climate and landscape, and vulnerability and violence are intimately meshed. Harvard anthropologists Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s work seeks to conjugate the ambiguity and provocations of art with a documentary attachment to the immediate flux of lived experience. Remarkably recorded at great personal commitment from 2001 to 2003–the filmmakers prefer “recording” to “directing,” as their film is observational but still highly disciplined–Sweetgrass is ethnography at its most beautiful and fascinating.
“If in the end Sweetgrass is about anything, it is perhaps what are at once the attractions and the ambivalence of the pastoral, and a life based on a propinquity between nature and culture that has been integral to the fabric of human history but which is now emphatically on the wane…”–Lucien Castaing-Taylor
— Vancouver International Film Festival