‘Sweetgrass’ documentary offers last look at Wild West

“Less is more” is a statement that holds true with the Western documentary Sweetgrass (2009), an unusual film with little video editing and no background narration. Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass was an official selection at the New York, Berlin and Vancouver Film Festivals. The film documents the massive migration of two American shepherds and their flocks across Montana’s mountains. There is no soundtrack to dramatize the 150-mile trek, no narrator to explain or intrude on the viewer’s experience. Sweetgrass simply lays out bare footage and allows it viewers as close to a firsthand view of an age-old tradition as they may ever get.

Transportation of livestock by herding is waning in the U.S.; Sweetgrass includes footage of the last sheep run in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range during 2001. This documentary is a cinematic portrait of the last shepherds to venture into the mountains: Lawrence Allested, whose family had been grazing sheep for generations, and his hired hands. The lifestyle of these shepherds is a fascinating mix of nomadic traditions and modern technology. Modern cowboys lure their sheep into pens by trailing a carpet of grass behind a tractor, use walkie-talkies to communicate and have cell phones. Yet they still pitch their tents with tarp and sticks, ride their horses and call to their sheep dogs. Even bear and wolverine attacks remain frequent occurrences.

Without narration, the film relies heavily on the beautiful shots, small details and audience’s attentiveness to portray the rugged life of modern cowboys and their flocks. The events of the film unfold in beautiful panoramic views of the Montana mountains. Images of the morning sun filtering through the trees and the visual impact of thousands of sheep flooding through a narrow forest trail are breathtaking. Sweetgrass is a beautifully shot film that manages to invoke wonder at America’s iconic “Wild West.” Many scenes need no narration to convey their emotional messages, including one scene where a mother and newborn sheep are separated and then reunited. In fact, the lack of narration imparts a greater sense of emotional impact by leaving no choice but to focus on the screen.

Conversely, the absence of narration leads to baffling moments for uninformed audiences. Just like the hundreds of distraught sheep in the pen witnessing a shepherd drag an ewe away from its mother for no apparent reason, so is the viewer equally unsure of the shepherd’s purpose. One can only watch in confused trepidation as the shepherd drags the newborn across the dirt pen with the mother trailing behind at a fearful distance. The young ewe bleats pathetically as it is unceremoniously put into a pen. Only when the shepherd steps aside and waits for the mother to follow the ewe into the pen does the viewer understand that the seemingly cruel process was to relocate the pair from the huge herd into a more secluded pen. The shepherds’ treatment of the sheep ranges from overtly callous to tenderly caring. Some mornings a shepherd sings to his flock. Another time a shepherd screams in frustration, cussing at his sheep and at his own inability to control the vast flock.

Despite these drawbacks, the lack of narration lends a sense of honesty to the film. Unlike documentaries with heavy narration and background knowledge, such as Michael Moore’s films or the animal documentary March of the Penguins, Sweetgrass does not seem to have any visible bias or spin. Objective and realistic, Sweetgrass is shot so as to allow the audience to piece together any necessary background information, including snippets of dialogue between the hired hands, casual joking among the shepherds and their discussions of the next day’s journey.

However, the paltry dialogue and the concentration required to enjoy the film can be taxing at times. Some of the scenes where the sheep are merely walking, or even the shearing scene in the beginning, drag on for too long. For less-focused viewers, the 101-minute documentary is in danger of appearing dull and tedious.
Overall, the movie is a beautifully shot, realistic view of an American tradition that has drawn to an end. Its minimalist approach underscores the deep relationships between shepherd and sheep, and speaks to the difficulties and dangers of this nomadic way of life without romanticizing it.

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