The documentary Sweetgrass, which shows the last, hardy sheep herders of the Beartooth Mountains of Montana driving their flock for the final few times, is not a work that invites words in reply to the soaring, majestic beauty and raw, environmental reality that it depicts. Rather, it demands a manner of patience, watchfulness, and repose that corresponds with its own long-reach reverberations and unnarrated, unmodified gaze. Filmed over several years by two Harvard anthropologists, it is a privileged look into a job and a way of life that is about to disappear forever. But in its broad and sweeping scope, it is also intimately direct, effectively touching the core of our attitudes towards nature.
This is visual anthropology in the most literal sense, lush and highly immersive, the only soundtrack being the noises made by the animals and the occasional exchanges between the human beings who lead them. An unusual way to present research, to be sure. It is as though all the hours spent on the range have been pared down to critically sublime moments of intensity and quietude, leaving only a thick, deeply-set patina that has, in this case, provided fodder for preceding video installations. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor spend most of their time watching the sheep, looking to them as the primary loci of a vanishing physical culture and also, it could be argued, as symbolic of the interface between human beings and nature that spans the last few millenia. The sheep move together as one, as a white and uninterrupted stream, placid but forceful, shoving and bounding over one another in perpetual motion, something like the evolving landscape itself. The bleat goes on.
Although in one sense the film is about time, it is without a chronological component, compressing and omitting much. It intimates generations of change that have occurred throughout the mountainous region, seen prismatically, overlaid many times over. The herders have transformed the ancient, serried landscape, and now they find themselves in the final phases of effective extinction. The land will undoubtedly gain back the state that it was in before humans, before sheep. And while one could feel sadness for this dying connection to the premodern and the pastoral, the herders themselves do not hold an idealized notion of what they do; it is harsh and exhausting, and in the pickup truck driving home they talk about what they’re going to do next. They have done the job for so long because there was good money in it, but it now seems a cumbersome relic.
We get the feeling that the pull of the modern world is catching up with the sheep herders. One of them explodes in frustration over the job while talking on his cell phone to his mother, a breakdown that seems to come at the end of a protracted crisis of faith. A group of sheep breaks loose and wanders up a precipitous mountainside, to the herders’ exasperation. While the drive is grueling and painstakingly orchestrated, it gives the sense of being barely controlled chaos. But it is quiet; the herder’s cries to his mother provide one of the two most jarring points of the film (the other is when the men shoot a bear that has been menacing the flock).
Sweetgrass is not quick to reveal information, as indeed it should not. Without conveying things in a didactic way, and with very little articulated, it requires a different sort of pace than the standard television documentary or ethnographic film. And it requires a different sort of viewing as well, of a type that is receptive to details and imagery much more than ideas. We get a sense, quite gradually, for the personalities of the people who work with the sheep year round, as they set up lean-to tents, cook their meals, and make the arduous and impossibly slow push into summer grazing territory.
The film has attracted much adoration, partly because no degree of hyperbole people want to apply to it would seem too much, and indeed, there is something monolithic about it. It is an artifact – an incredibly beautiful one – to be admired for its unhurried, loving attention to detail. The uncredited directors, given their field of study, are looking at the human element, but in a much more diffuse and not as resolutely concentrated way as one would expect. The film looks into a much broader human story than the one in its immediate purview, one that is essentially written by nature and the ever-reliable turning of seasons. While there are shades of the romantic sweep of an American Western, or the epic scope of Cooper and Schoedsack’s Grass (1925), here the filmmakers avoid making the work come off as wistful, while at the same time their sensitivity carries it to a level of connection with the viewer that is vaguely spiritual. We get a taste for the bigger picture, and how the days of herding were just a phase, and how they mean almost nothing in terms of geological history. The mountains will continue more or less unchanged, their rivers carving low gorges and nourishing a tranquil, emerald landscape, as they have for time immemorial.