Directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Many documentarians like to fatuously claim a kinship with Robert Flaherty, but Sweetgrass's harmony with the master is legitimate. With minimal ostentation and next to no dialogue, it portrays the migration of two cowboys and a huge flock of sheep across Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture. Initial footage of sheep-shearing prepare you for an Our Daily Bread-like expose of factory farming horrors, but Sweetgrass hits its casual stride once herders Pat and John embark on their painstaking trek, recorded and presented in long takes. Filmmaker couple Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash save their project from mere museum gallery ambience with judicious editing, and equal time served to the animals and men. There is little wit or intellectual stimulation here, but there is a welcome lack of academic (the directors are Harvard higher-ups) "sons of the soil" patronization. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions.
If the journey seems quixotic and outdated—couldn't they just load up several trucks and drive to a grazing meadow?—it's because it is. Shot from 2001 to 2003 (the raw footage must inhabit a warehouse of hard drives) the documentary only tells you at the end that it's something like an elegy, and this journey was the last of its kind of anyone's in the region. This quaintness echoes the 2007 Film Forum stalwart, Into Great Silence, the documentary of an alien, Carthusian monk world that simply laid low and observed. Late in Sweetgrass, there's an extended, profane outburst of frustration from one of the herders about the ornery sheep, but its lasting value comes from its measured, anthropological serenity.
Opens January 6 at Film Forum