Sweetgrass (2010) – Documentary Retroview

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Sweetgrass (2010) – Documentary Review

The End Of The Trail in Montana

Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor follow Montana sheep herders as they drive 3,000 sheep through the Beartooth Mountains of Montana during the summer of 2003. This challenging and dangerous journey was the final annual sheep drive along a trail that has been followed since the early 1900s. The documentary is cinema verite in its purest form. There is no use of voice over narration to tell the story, no graphics are used during the film to establish location or explain images. Sweetgrass is an exquisite example of what the directors call ‘visual antropology.’

A Tale of Sheep and Shepherds

In the summer of 2003, Montana shepherds drove a huge flock of some 3,000 ewes and lambs from remote ranches in the northern-most regions of the state, to the stockyards. This was the last time drovers would follow the trail that had been followed annually since the early 1900s, the traditional route across the beautiful, wildly rugged and challenging Beartooth Mountains. Sweetgrass records the remarkable journey.
From its opening moments, when there is the sound of rushing wind and the screen lights up with images of hundreds of sheep standing stock still, like statues, in the serene snow clad landscape, the documentary roots itself in its very special location. This is a film about place, about tradition, about lifestyle — and about change.

The scenery is spectacular. The sheep are fascinating. They behave as sheep do — following each other, bleating incessantly, crowding in front of each other to forage for food. We see them under electric shears and giving birth. They have personality.

The drovers, too, are compelling characters. They’re self-sufficient, capable, endure hardship and exhaustion on the trail and are full of surprises. While pitching tents and riding over treacherous terrain, they sing and recite poetry. They’re candid, open, uninhibited. They pee in the wild (back to camera, of course), shoot at bears that threaten the sheep, cuss outrageously or call home to mom when the going gets too miserably rough. They’re simple people, but they seem larger than life. They could be models for the heroes of our narrative Western movies.

Brilliant Observational Filmmaking

This very special story of shepherds and sheep — and their final journey together — is told exclusively through the observational eye of the camera. The filmmakers do not appear in the film, nor do they conduct interviews. There is no voice over narration. There are no interstitial graphics to establish locations or explain events. The camera serves as your eyes, and the cinematography is magnificent. Shots are beautifully framed, perfectly composed and sustained long enough to register with full impact. And the masterful editing lets the story breathe, so that you can experience the event — the historic moment — and characters in a contemplative, yet thrilling way.
Sweetgrass is a film of record about the American West, it documents and pays tribute to a way of life that is fast fading.

If You Like This Film, You May Also Like

The Cove
Arctic Tale
Winged Migration
Earth Days
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Film Details:

Title: Sweetgrass – 2010
Director: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Release Date: November 7, 2010
Running Time: 101 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Locations: Montana
Language: English
Production Country: USA
Production Company: Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab
Distribution Company: Cinema Guild

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