Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Sweetgrass is an observational film with 200 shots leisurely paced over 105 minutes. Each shot is held long enough for you to wonder at the length of the sheep's eyelashes, or contemplate what, if anything, a sheep is thinking when it stares blankly into the camera lens.  No narration, no "interviews" and only one or two passing acknowledgments from the human subjects that a camera is even present.

Filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor spoke at the end of the screening and told a story about how one particular shot was hard won.  He got up at 3 a.m. and journeyed far into the distance so he could grab a long shot of the herd winding down the mountain side.  Surprised by a noise, and with bears in the area, he pulled out pepper spray - which the breeze blew straight into his eyes.  Collapsed on the side of the mountain, blinded at dawn, he had to wait for more than an hour for his sight to return.  He then attempted the zoom in eight times, not sure if his blurry vision was affecting the focus. When the film was developed, only two of the shots were usable.

The film took eight years to complete and was shot in Montana over four summers between 2000 - 2003, capturing the sheep herders watching over their flock as their way of life is disappearing.  (The last herd of sheep grazed on this patch of public land in 2001, replaced by more profitable cattle.)

The landscape is awe-inspiring: big sky, towering mountains, treacherous crevices.  Humans, sheeps and dogs mere specks.

The sheep herders are interesting subjects, too, isolated as they are for months at a time.  The simple way of life is not easy - bears, wolverines, lack of sleep, aching bodies.  There is one scene where you hear a long tirade of beautifully strung curses, despairing at the stupidity of the sheep, the dogs, the mountain - and needing a day off work.  Another memorable scene catches the guard dogs feasting on the carcass of a sheep left over from a predator.  "You don't think they've got a taste for sheep now, do you?" one man questions the other.

The New York Times reviewed the film after its release in January:
As if to acknowledge the collaborative nature of all filmmaking, “Sweetgrass” doesn’t have directing or (image) editing credits: Mr. Castaing-Taylor is its recordist, Ms. Barbash its producer. Both have day jobs at Harvard University, where he is the director of the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, and also teaches, and she is an associate curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum; they also have several books, including one on the ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner (who was at Harvard for decades). Elsewhere, Mr. Gardner once listed “Modern Times,” “The Rules of the Game” and “Zero for Conduct” as among his favorite ethnographic films because “the sheer observational power that illuminates these films contributes more to an understanding of the human condition than the great majority of all other motion picture documents, with the emphatic inclusion of nearly all those that are referred to as ‘ethnographic.’ ”
The trailer is a bit misleading because it is quickly paced, but it gives you a condensed taste of the subject.

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