Film Review: Sweetgrass

An excellent introduction to the rigors of ranching life, this documentary nevertheless exploits Americans’ romantic views of the West.

Sweetgrass, a documentary about sheepherders in Blue Sky, Montana, was directed and produced by a pair of Harvard anthropologists, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Eschewing both narration and interviews, the couple portray the three-month pasturing of sheep in the Gallatin National Forest north and west of Yellowstone National Park. For most audiences, the documentary is an eye-opening account of ranching, as it obviously was for British-born Castaing-Taylor, who accompanied the ranchers and shot the film. His lingering vistas of the Absakora-Beartooth Mountain Range are aimed directly at the collective unconscious of Americans who like to imagine that the storied West of wagon trains and cattle drives is, if not intact, at least still inviolate.

Displaying a remarkable talent for narrative, the filmmakers produce an excellent ethnographic record of many aspects of ranching. However, these are sheepherders, not to be confused with cowboys, and while the challenges of the ranching life are similar throughout the West, in some ways the documentary exploits the average American’s unfamiliarity with the lifestyle. Framed by two “protagonists,” one a seasoned ranch-hand, an archetype of the gentle, weather-beaten guy of few words—he addresses the sheep as “girls”—and the other a repulsive, whining neophyte who in the last portion of the film punches his horse—he calls the sheep “bitches”—Sweetgrass moves at a leisurely pace, sometimes appropriately in order to illustrate, for instance, how ewes are induced to care for their newborn lambs. Nevertheless, the lengthy and recurring wide-eyed-wonder shots of the alpine landscape are excessive and interrupt the narrative flow, bringing Sweetgrass to a ponderous 101 minutes.

At the 2009 New York Film Festival screening, Barbash explained that while she and Castaing-Taylor and their children set out with the ranchers, because of the presence of grizzly bears and wolves, he went on alone while she remained behind to film community events and town meetings. Barbash wanted to include the meetings in the documentary, which would have explained some of the conflicts only hinted at in Sweetgrass between ranchers and environmentalists. Ongoing disagreements over the use of public lands, and the protection and re-introduction of predators that ranchers claim threaten their herds in Montana and Wyoming—actually, the wolf population was in decline at the time of filming—would have checked the documentary’s penchant for romanticizing, and provided a more comprehensive picture of why ranching is an increasingly difficult way of life in America.

The Gallatin National Forest, where Sweetgrass was filmed over several summers, is spectacular for its remoteness, its variety of wildlife, and the granite cordillera of the Rockies. While that natural beauty is carefully if excessively documented by the cinematography, when the camera is pointed at people or sheep it mostly remains anchored in medium or long shot for five minutes or more. The result is a documentary that feels distanced from its subjects. Sweetgrass, named for the sort of pasture the sheep and sheepherders seek, is at its best when it assumes an observational documentary style, as it does during the birthing-barn and tent-pitching sequences, but it fails when the filmmakers seek out their own poetic notions of the American West in a sleeping ranch-hand, or in the interminable, over-dramatized sheep drive through the forest.