Sweetgrass. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Cinema Guild. 2009.

Sweetgrass. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Cinema Guild. 2009.

Sweetgrass. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Cinema Guild. 2009. 150 150 Harry Overend

Spend three years following some Montana shepherds, then five years editing over 200 hours of footage, and you end up with Sweetgrass.1 This documentary film examines the reality of the human-animal relationship between a shepherd and his flock – a relationship in which both parties are completely dependent upon each other. With an unflinching eye and slow aesthetic, directors Castaing-Taylor and Barbash show us the daily labours of a modern-day sheep herder in a society where this ancient occupation and way of life is fading. We are all familiar with the image of the shepherd as a gentle, selfless leader, often deployed as a metaphor in religious discourse, but Sweetgrass tests our perceptions of this, asking if we can see beauty when idealism is stripped away as the shepherds struggle to drive their herd over 150 miles through the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.

“Poets and painters since the Classics […] have waxed lyrical about the bucolic, arcadian lifestyle,
but you never get any sense of what it’s like to inhabit a sheep herder’s body”2

Sweetgrass strips back the documentary tradition into a seemingly unbiased, raw form in which 5 minute takes are common, and instead of a voice-over presenting us with fact, we are left with nothing other than diegetic sound. Through this we access a different kind of truth, with a more authentic look at animal behaviour in contrast to the extremes (such as exotic mating displays and tense hunts) we expect from a blue chip documentary. From the opening scene, the film emerges us in the animal realm in which we are the intruder, a bleak and unwelcoming landscape that is translated to us through an appeal to the senses rather than through the authority of a narrator. The lingering shots force us to pay more attention to the subtle tones of the wind, and notice the thin snow’s descent, drawing our focus onto the physical detail of the scene. In an interview, Barbash explains how she “wanted […] an audience to trust us, and just sit back and let the images play”, which is in itself a political approach. The directors wish to draw us in, so that we hypnotically invest curiosity into the scenes due to their appealing lull. The decision to have no narrative voice fits Barbash’s claim that Sweetgrass ‘tips its hat’ to the 1925 documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life.3 The appeal isn’t in verbalised facts, but in our experience of the human-animal interactions as we are guided through the realities of sheep farming, and purposefully given time to contemplate the visual experience.

From the initially heavy animal focus of the film, we are slowly introduced to the humans as their voices and personalities are revealed as the film progresses, which moulds our perspective on the human-animal relationship. We connect with the lack of performance shown through the lens, especially when one sheep herder calls his mother from the top of a mountain, and we are given access to an intimate outpour of emotion. This is part of a carefully constructed series of shots which purposefully challenge our view of the herders. In the previous scene, we find comedic value in his ranting at the sheep, which is intensified as the camera pans out, contrasting his crude remarks (“You’re as worthless as tits on a boar-hog”) with the majesty of the natural scenery. However, when immediately after this we are shown his actual anxieties which motivated the anger, we instead sympathise with his new sense of hopelessness. The same technique of starkly displaying the powerful scenery is deployed, with the voice we hear coming from out of the frame. Instead of a comedic effect though, we feel his isolation as the camera pans slowly and purposefully across the valley. Whereas before we only see his frustration with the sheep, we see a different connection through his genuine concern for the dog. His statement of “I’m helpless, he’s the only dog I got” shows his dependence on his companion in maintaining control of the sheep; his authority over the animal is dependent on a coexistence with it. There may be a feeling of clashing between his distress over the sheep and the beauty of the scenery, but as the camera only shows what the herder himself can see, we realise the sheer pressure and exertion that is placed upon the profession through his heartfelt words. Upon his confession that “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate them, and it’s getting to that point”, we are forced to place our own reaction of awe from the mountains alongside his, emphasising the struggle of human integration with nature’s unforgiving impartiality. Instead of the relentless, almost mocking sound of the herd’s bleats, we now have just the wind to guide our contemplation. The affection and appreciation of the animals is shown as he pets his dog, and we see how it also provides the shepherd with the comfort and familiarity that he needs. This is a celebration of the union between human and animal, despite its hardships.

Castaing-Taylor and Barbash introduce a new animal presence through the bears, which fulfil a villain role in their threat to the sheep. The sound of a dog’s barking combined with the blackness of the frame provide immediate unease and danger, which is all heightened by the realism of the documentary style. It is difficult to make out the bear’s physical shape, its presence is given away by the light shining back off its eyes which gives an ominous feel to the scene. With the introduction of this alien threat, the connection between the shepherds and their flock is strengthened, and we see their obligation and impulse to protect the sheep. However, in accordance to the unbiased ethos of the film, we are later shown the bear in a completely different way which breaks down the clear binary of bear as violent threat and sheep as helpless victims. In this second shot, the dog barking and shouting of the men is replaced by morning birdsong, and the bear moves away from us within the frame, instead of facing us threateningly. What was a shaky, hand-held camera shot is now a static, longer shot that presents the bear as an agent of nature – an unimposing part of the scenery. This leaves us in an uncertain position as to our perception of the bear, in which although aligned with the herders, we find ourselves unable to dismiss the bear as a purely malignant entity. Castaing-Taylor and Barbash highlight this conflict that they must face, to protect their flock without too heavily inflicting on the natural order of the mountains that they must pass through.

The different animal presences within Sweetgrass seem to embody different relationships with the human, but these are of course not straightforward or consistent through the film. Initially, the sheep seem to be objects of commerce which need maintenance and labour. True, this association remains as they journey into the mountains, but the scenery away from the farm buildings evokes a more poetic, emotional connection which is aided by the stylised shots of the sheep flowing along the hillside. The struggle to reach the promised pasture brings out frustrations in the herders, which ends up being directed towards not just the sheep, but the horses and dogs too. However, as we’ve seen with the affection towards the dogs, this frustration is due to the pressures of the task, and fuelled by a desire for things to go smoothly, for there to be a functioning coherence between the herders, working animals and the flock. Sweetgrass takes us through a spectrum of responses to the animal world, from swearing to celebratory shouting and one herder’s affectionate calling to the “girls”. The nature of the long shots establish the herders and their animals as being part of the scenery, engaging with a tradition with the land, but in reality they’re intruders, and yet we can’t remove our own human perspective that sees the herders in the role of the hero.

Sweetgrass shares similarities with Herzog’s Grizzly Man in how it attempts to convey truth to the audience.4 Both films show a preference to long shots focusing on the aesthetic value of the scenery and animal presences, but in Grizzly Man this appeal lies in Treadwell’s own footage, not Herzog’s own personal connection to the landscape. The pastoral acts like an escape from an unattractive urban society, but despite its escapism, provides many issues to the human by revealing to man his own inadequacy to compete with raw natural forces.

Further Reading

Barbash, Ilisa and Taylor, Lucien, Cross-Cultural Filmmaking (California: University of California Press, 1997).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJ_PEA0Aad0
– Interview with Castaign-Taylor and Barbash

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdnL0CkRdkk
– Clips from Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life on YouTube

Leviathan. Dir. Lucien Castaign-Taylor and Verena Paravel. Cinema Guild, 2012.

Bibliography

Cinema Guild, Sweetgrass Presskit (2009) <http://sweetgrassthemovie.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Presskit.pdf> [accessed 24 November 2015]

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. Dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Scoedsack. Paramount Pictures, 1925.

Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Lions Gate Films, 2005.

Sweetgrass. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Cinema Guild, 2009.

WNYC, ‘The Leonard Lopate Show: Sweetgrass’, WNYC (2010) <http://www.wnyc.org/story/59804-sweetgrass/> [accessed 23 November 2015]

Endnotes

1Sweetgrass. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Cinema Guild, 2009.

2 WNYC, ‘The Leonard Lopate Show: Sweetgrass’, WNYC (2010) <http://www.wnyc.org/story/59804-sweetgrass/> [accessed 23 November 2015]

3 Cinema Guild, Sweetgrass Presskit (2009) <http://sweetgrassthemovie.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Presskit.pdf> [accessed 24 November 2015]

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. Dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Scoedsack. Paramount Pictures, 1925.

4Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Lions Gate Films, 2005.