Directed By: Illisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor.
I’m not sure that has ever been a documentary made about sheep herding before – and probably for good reason. Although old Westerns have filled audience’s heads with romantic notions of cattle rushes, and I suppose that is essentially what they do with the sheep here, it really isn’t all that glamorous. The cowboys are out on the range with their herd, or flock, and have to try and keep them all in line. It’s got to be tiring.
Illisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass is not a glamorous documentary either. It is a largely wordless film, full of beautiful, mesmerizing images of these cowboys herding their sheep through the mountains passes and fields. It is not a film that most audience members would ever really want to see. But if you give yourself over to it, it is quietly beautiful, mournful, and even slightly profound.
I am really at a loss for words as to what to say about the film. It is a deceptively simple film. The directors do not try to make any of it seem fun or exciting – they simply content themselves in watching these men – with their sad, wrinkled faces like the Marlboro Man 30 years down the line – and of course the thousands of sheep, who move together in way that is quietly beautiful, and lets the audience either get swept up in it all, or turn away and become bored.
There is an air of sadness that hangs over the film – one that you cannot quite put your finger on until the film’s final frames – when for the first time the directors introduced title cards that explain why, perhaps, this seems like an end of an era – because in fact it is.
So many films try so hard to manipulate the emotions of the audience – and when they do try too hard, I usually resist, because I don’t like to be blatantly manipulated. But here, I found Sweetgrass to be quietly moving. Yes, it is a movie about sheep herding with almost no dialogue – and there are times when it can get rather dull. But if you are willing, these men are their sheep, may just move you in ways you didn’t see come coming when you sat down to watch the film.