Are sheep the new penguins?
Dust off your chaps. Oil your saddle. Stock up on liniment. You’re about to go on the last Montana sheep drive over the Beartooth Mountains in the western documentary “Sweetgrass,” and it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget.
A unique film, “Sweetgrass” features a 3,000-strong herd of Big Sky sheep and the herdsmen and women and sheepdogs who tend them, keep them in formation and retrieve them when they go astray, on a journey from shearing shed to summer pasture. It’s brutally hard, bone-weary work, but it’s all done under sky and stars, as well as the hungry gaze of predators.
The hills are alive with the sound of bleating sheep, as well as jingle-jangling harnesses, walkie-talkie eruptions and herders’ yelps and cries in this significant and marvelous ethnological record.
The film, a moving elegy for America’s vanishing cowboy, is directed in the unobtrusive, no-voice-over, Frederick Wiseman style by husband and wife team Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash (Castaing-Taylor also shot the film in DV and 35 mm). A Peabody Museum, Cambridge Production, “Sweetgrass” is also a product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.
As expected, the film is visually spectacular, ranging from sheep-cam POV to graphic displays of births to distant aerial views of the insect-like sheep spreading across a mountainside to a rosy-fingered sunrise of breathtaking beauty.
In one memorable sequence, an injured, exhausted herdsman on horseback cuts loose with a profanity-laced tirade against the sheep fiery enough to set the whole flock ablaze.
In the tradition of Merian Cooper’s groundbreaking documentary “Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life” (1925), “Sweetgrass” cries out for a genuine movie screen. See it and dive into a sea of sheep.
JAMES VERNIERE. April 2, 2010. Boston Herald