Movie review: 'Sweetgrass' follows Montana sheepherders on final grazing drive

Sheep are the stars in the stunning documentary "Sweetgrass," following sheepherders and their flock on their final grazing drive.
Sheep are the stars in the stunning documentary "Sweetgrass," following sheepherders and their flock on their final grazing drive. (Cinema Guild)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

How many movies can say they have a cast of thousands, and mean it? "Sweetgrass" can. It's a gorgeous and, believe it or not, riveting documentary . . . about sheep.

Shot without narration, interviews or music -- save for a near-constant chorus of bleating animals -- the film tells the story of the last journey of a family of Montana sheepherders up the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer grazing. They were once part of a large group of families that used federal permits to graze their sheep on public land.

The sheep drive, a difficult journey of three months and 150 miles involving 3,000 animals and a handful of ranchers and hired hands from the Allested sheep ranch, is a practice that has been going on since the late 19th century. Tens of thousands of sheep once made the trip. And now it is no more, thanks to competition from factory farming.

Of course, there's sadness there, but husband-and-wife filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash aren't about sentimentalizing a dying way of life. In one scene, one of the cowboys, as they call themselves, can be heard on a mountaintop complaining to his mother by cellphone about the long hours (5 a.m. to 11 p.m.), endless wind, ornery sheep and a bum knee. "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em," he says.

Fortunately, we don't have the same problem. The film is visually stunning, filled with more breathtaking shots than you can count: silently falling snow; clouds' moving shadows caressing a green mountainside; a bird singing on a single, bare branch; the cold white moon set against a midnight sky. It's pure poetry.

Of course, there are disturbing images, too. A bear attacks a sheep, for instance, leaving the bloody carcass -- and a swarm of black flies -- for the shepherds to find. Later, we see some of the herders' hungry dogs, though they are trained to protect the flock, eating the remains. And even before the sheepherders leave the ranch, there's a presumably orphaned lamb being dressed in the still-intact skin of another dead lamb, like a baby's onesie, in order to fool the mother with her dead baby's scent, so that she will allow the strange lamb to nurse.

It's heavy, circle-of-life stuff, and it gives "Sweetgrass" its rich subtext. This isn't just a pretty eulogy for the cowboy, with the sheep as anonymous extras.

Barbash is, in her day job, a visual anthropologist; Castaing-Taylor the director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. Those hybridized titles tell you something. The two may have the curiosity of scientists, but their talents lie closer to those of artists. They have the ability to make us see and hear -- and at times, it seems, almost smell -- the things that define and enrich our lives. Not just the fresh mountain air, but the blood, sweat and tears of life here below.

*** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains cussing, footage of a sheep carcass, a sheep giving birth. 101 minutes.

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