Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are both anthropologists based at Harvard University — she is curator of visual anthropology at
the Peabody Museum; he is director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab.
Their new documentary film, “Sweetgrass,” captures the change in the American West by documenting the last sheepherders on Montana’s Beartooth Mountains to make a practice of driving sheep onto protected federal lands for summer pasture.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor
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were teaching in Colorado when they heard about Lawrence Allested, a rancher in Sweetgrass County who had told someone, “I am the last guy to do this, and someone ought to make a film about it.” That was enough to grab the couple’s interest.
“As anthropologists, we really were interested in this idea of people clinging to tradition against all sorts of really difficult odds,” said Barbash in a recent interview.
“The sheep drive itself almost takes the life out of people, and this is a family that has been doing it for years and years and years despite the difficulty, because at this point they’re doing it despite the fact that it’s not really economically viable. They hang on to the tradition, and they’re taking a significant amount of pride in that,” Barbash said.
In 1930, the area had 30 bands of sheep with a head count of about 90,000 over the summer. By the time Castaing-Taylor went to scope out the cinematic possibilities, there was only Allested with his one flock of 3,000 sheep in the mountains near Yellowstone Park.
Castaing-Taylor visited during lambing season to meet the farmers and farmhands, which resulted in packing up their family for the summer and start filming.
“They put me up
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in an old sheepherder wagon from frontier days outside their house for a few days,” Castaing-Taylor said. “When we got to the end of the road and I went up to the top of the mountains with them, I was aware that this was an amazing place — it was so powerful and beautiful, so remote, that there was definitely a film there that was interesting.”
It was not only the landscape that enticed the filmmakers, but also the 20,000-year history
of man’s relationship with domesticated animals, and how this family hearkens back to that. They were also struck by the family’s connection to the history of the colonization of the West and their role as a final link in the chain to that era.
“Homesteading is the history of people going out and staking a claim and getting a section, getting 640 acres or multiple sections, and trying to make a living and finding they can’t,” said Castaing-Taylor. “They might have rainfall and sun for two years, and then for five they might have drought, so their deeded land has always had to be supplemented with these grazing permits on federal land or national forest land in marginal areas. For the last 100 years, there have been these huge bands or herds of cattle and of sheep and to a lesser degree goats grazing up in the hinterlands in the West.”
In Colorado, the filmmakers had become aware of the commercialization of cowboy culture, but in Montana, they encountered the real thing, and that culture’s displacement from the commodified world that had co-opted the imagery they still clung to.
“It’s super hard for them to survive financially, whereas two generations ago, their forebears were — they were big landowners back then,” said Castaing-Taylor. “To be in sheep was to potentially be very wealthy and they would go to the main bar, the main hotel or the main restaurant in town and they would be the local gentry, and now they see themselves being progressively marginalized.”
To capture the relationship between the people and the land they work, Castaing-Taylor utilized eight wireless microphones, rigged with a range of one and a half miles — a three-mile diameter. This caught the utterances of not only the cowboys, but also sheep, horses and dogs. The technique creates an vivid
and layered soundtrack for the cinematographic wonders of the film, which offers an immersive experience for the viewer.
“I would be getting these signals from them, and they would forget about me, and there would be these surreal synchronicities that would result because people would be saying things that would have nothing to do with what was going on in front of the camera,” said Castaing-Taylor.
“You often get these very objective, very distant, very
picturesque, very scenic shots joined with these very intimate, guttural, almost non-verbal exclamations, or people
are coughing or spitting or laughing or trying to recite half-remembered snatches of a song, which is much closer to the way we express ourselves in everyday life when we’re not being interviewed.”
This sound technique is at the center of the aesthetic the filmmakers bring to documentary film, one that reflects real life as it is lived — and in as close to real time as possible — rather than an explanation of that life. The cowboys’ day unfolds with no narrative other than whatever conversations they might have with each other — the rest
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“You think about most fiction films — you see actors portraying people living their lives — but if you think about most documentary films, you see people pontificating and talking about their lives rather than just living them and getting on with them,” said Castaing-Taylor.
“This is kind of ironic, because fiction films are supposed to be invented, and documentary films are supposed to reflect everyday life. We live our lives; we don’t constantly pontificate about them, so we were interested in coming out with a documentary style that was more faithful to how we actually live our lives rather than interviewing people, having them interpret their lives for us or explain themselves to us. We just wanted them to get on with being sheepherders or being whatever they were.”
were able to seize a stunning intimacy through this technique. In one scene that stands out to attendees at screenings, one of the farmhands begins to unravel on a cellphone call to his mother, spewing out the frustrations of his work and momentarily threatening to break down. It’s a vulnerable scene that is at first sight remarkable for capturing an archetype of masculinity, but it’s also a point that brings the cowboys and the audience together in an common emotional ground.
“If documentary is really trying to do justice to the nature of lived experiences, you’d think there would be more of these kinds of moments in documentary,” Castaing-Taylor said. “We’ve shown it around the world now, and when we first showed it in Berlin, someone said to me, ‘That’s the most amazing cussing scene I’ve ever seen in cinema; he sounds just like me on the Autobahn when I’m cussing out the other drivers.’ The film got shown in Missoula Montana for the first time last week. Again, people came up to Pat, like a middle-aged woman who lives in an office in Missoula, and she said, ‘It was just a heartfelt scene, and you reminded me of these moments that I’m at the end of my tether in the office and I’m screaming at people around me.’”
Regardless of the sophisticated sound design, the filmmakers also wanted to make sure they captured the quiet moments that speckled the work. In one scene, the two farmhands sit in a tent for a moment of extended silence that speaks as much about their experience as any screaming possibly could.
“Silence and loneliness — being alone, solitude — are huge parts of human existence and the way we live our lives, but they have almost no place within documentaries, so it seemed important to try and include those moments,” said Castaing-Taylor. “Even though we didn’t
tell them to ignore the camera — in fact there were three or four times they acknowledged the camera, acknowledged our presence — we didn’t want the camera to be the determining factor. We wanted to see how they would reveal themselves when they were largely forgetting about the camera
or indifferent to the camera, when they were getting on with their job.”
Since the filming, the family has moved on, while still clinging to what they know
best. They sold their grazing license in 2006 to an environmental firm that didn’t want domesticated animals on the land and also sold their ranch and reinvested the money in a larger one near the Canadian border. The same farmhands work for them and though the owners are retired, they are trying to pass the new ranch onto their son, who is trying to focus on cattle but still includes a number of sheep in the herd.
“They can’t let them go because that is all they know, and it’s part of their livelihood and history and they want to keep that going, but they know they are moving into the twilight of their lives, and the future of the ranch lies with their son,” said Castaing-Taylor.
While Barbash and Castaing-Taylor managed to capture a quickly vanishing way of life, they see clearly the factors that have pushed it out of the realm of possibility. Their film might be the last testament of the ghosts on the Western landscape.
“It’s almost impossible to survive financially in family ranching — everything’s been taken over by corporate agri-business. Family ranches have gone out of business — these rich folks from California and New York have moved in and bought up the land just to have these hobby preservation/ conservation ranches, which aren’t really worked anymore, but they come in for two weeks so their kids can learn how to ride horses,” said Castaing-Taylor.
“The local folks
are being progressively disenfranchised and marginalized and put out of business in many ways, so the fact that they were able to keep this going until 2003 was a source of real pride to them.”
JOHN SEVEN. March 6, 2010. Reverse Direction.