Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

There have been great films made about the collapse of empires, journeys into space, the horrors of war and the complexities of the human psyche – but never about a year in the life of a flock of sheep.

You certainly couldn’t accuse the makers of Sweetgrass of going for a guaranteed box-office-busting crowd-pleaser. But this elegiac yet forensically detailed examination of a harsh and elemental way of life, while not perhaps achieving greatness, is certainly one of the best and most unusual documentaries I’ve seen in a long time.

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Our ovine chums have not, it must be said, loomed large in the cinematic lexicon up to now. They were a key plot point but hardly a compelling presence in Brokeback Mountain. And apart from that I can only think of the Kiwi horror-comedy Black Sheep and the legendary Charles Burnett drama-documentary Killer of Sheep, about the life of a Los Angeles slaughterhouse worker who saw them at the final stage of their conversion into mutton.

The latter is the better reference point for a film that’s hard to define in the best possible way, though it starts at the very beginning. Like Burnett, Castaing-Taylor finds poetry in the everyday (not to say mundane) lives of the animals and the people who farm them.

I must admit, though, that my initial impressions were not favourable. Aside from a single initial caption telling us that we’re in Big Timber, Montana, there’s no narration, talking heads, overheard conversation or any information whatsoever for what seems a very long time.

Instead we get footage of sheep. Lots of it, and lots of them. Milling around, grazing, occasionally directing puzzled looks at the camera and being herded into a barn. It certainly plunges you right into a Midwest midwinter, where wind and snow scour a starkly beautiful landscape and a built-in woolly jumper is a prerequisite for survival. The sights and sounds (though thankfully not the smells) of a working farm create an almost tangible atmosphere.

But it does rather linger on a life cycle which isn’t the most inherently dramatic in the animal kingdom. The effect is rather like those ‘educational’ films you may remember from your schooldays – frequently silent depictions of day-to-day work on a coffee plantation or some such. The intention may have been to create a sense of amazement at the wonderful world about us but often simply left me thinking: “I’m glad my life isn’t that boring.”

I’m no fan of documentaries that bombard me with facts or try to spin an agenda but I found myself desperate for some kind of context – who owns this farm? How long have they owned it? Is it a family business or part of a massive conglomerate? Are they making a profit? And do they actually enjoy the shepherd’s life?

Some of these questions begin to be answered when the shearing and lambing begin in earnest and the human characters in the drama are given a voice. And that voice is a lugubrious, slightly melancholy Old West drawl with a rich vein of black humour running through it. The farmers and their hired hands are a small operation in a small community, clearly not making a fortune and increasingly aware that their way of life is under threat.

They lead a hard, physical outdoors life and their relationship with the livestock that’s their livelihood is one of affection but not sentimentality – there’s certainly not much concession to the sheep’s creature comforts as they manhandle them into the shearing sheds or dump them into the lambing pens. But even here, the filmmakers find moments of warmth and humanity, as when a worker calls wordlessly above the bleating to calm the sheep or fits an abandoned lamb with a fleece ‘romper suit’ to encourage another ewe to suckle it.

And this combination of the workaday and the universal is developed further in the film’s main section, where a party of workers take the sheep up into the mountains for summer pasture. Apart from the two-way radios and mobile phones it’s a job that’s been unchanged for centuries; herding thousands of animals on horseback through hundreds of miles of hard country with a full supply of natural hazards – and predators.

The men (and women) who undertake the job certainly look the part. Tall hats, boots and check shirts under an oilskin coat are almost a uniform and their faces are as marked and weathered as the wilderness around them. Unlike Brokeback Mountain, the irony of the ‘last cowboys’ working with the animal that originally formed the biggest threat to their way of life is never really explored (another missing context point which somewhat blunts the film’s impact). But the sense of a life stripped to the basics and utterly dependent on the laws of nature comes through very clearly.

The film-maker’s aesthetic is equally basic. There’s still no narration, or music, or any captioning to identify the many similarly-attired and accented cowboys and girls. The classic ‘vanishing world’ documentaries of cinema’s early years are an obvious touchstone, such as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North or Merian C Cooper’s Grass (a study of Persian herdsmen cited by the makers as an inspiration). It’s significant that the credits list the film as having been ‘recorded’ rather than ‘directed’ by Castaing-Taylor.

This seems a little disingenuous. To bring a film like this in at under 200 hours, a certain amount of editing and selecting is necessary. For all the adherence to depicting the ordinary unvarnished realities of the shepherds’ lives, Castaing-Taylor is aware of the dramatic potential of the constant armed vigilance required when bears start to target the camp, or the comic effect of a cowboy suddenly unleashing his pent-up frustration in a four-letter diatribe against his horse, his dog, the sheep, his job, the mountains and the ^*&!ing world in general.

Yet in a movie world which increasingly seems to assume no-one has an attention span of more than three seconds, the film-makers’ commitment to faithfully depicting a lifestyle that endured for generations but (as a bleak coda informs us) vanished in the time it took the film to be made, is only to be applauded. Approach it with a degree of patience and you’ll be rewarded with a poetic, moving and life-affirming look at the people who deal with nature in the raw to bring us the things we take for granted. I’m still glad they didn’t film it in Sniff-O-Rama, though.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2011
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A year in the life of a flock of sheep and the people who tend to them.
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Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash

Year: 2009

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US

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