Sweetgrass

USA 2009 | 115 Min. | OmU
Q&A with: David MacDougall, Ilker Çatak, Xingzheng Jin

Sheep – as far as the eye can see. The anthro­pol­o­gists and film­mak­ers Lucien Cas­taing-Taylor and Ilisa Bar­bash spent three sum­mers doc­u­ment­ing sheep farm­ing at one of the last family-owned ranch­es in the Absaro­ka-Beartooth Moun­tains. A sheep eats, and we see and hear it chew and the tinkle of the bell around its neck. Then it dis­cov­ers the camera and fixes its eyes on us, freez­ing the image. Now all we hear is the wind. Orig­i­nal sound of this kind helps lend pre­ci­sion to every shot. During shear­ing we can actu­al­ly feel the phys­i­cal exer­tion of the shep­herds and the dazed state of the sheep. The order of the gaze in space ana­lyzes the rela­tion­ship of a new­born lamb to the herd, to its mother, and to the shep­herd. Then a thou­sand sheep push through a gate or follow the trail of grass left by a feed­ing machine, and it has the effect of a crowd scene in an epic film. By the time we have reached the top of the moun­tain and the herder calls his mother com­plain­ing of knee pain, our image of the lonely shep­herd has been replaced by that of the cowboy. In scenes like this and in the coarse humor of the ranch­ers as they handle the ani­mals during brand­ing lies the story of free-range sheep farm­ing in the Amer­i­can West, a story that began in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and is now slowly coming to an end.