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A scene from SWEETGRASS (Photo: Cinema Guild)

Directed by
Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Produced by
Ilisa Barbash
Released by Cinema Guild
USA. 101 min. Not Rated  

When my son was little, I told him we were going to the Old West, so he presumed our airplane to the Rocky Mountains was a time machine taking us to a rodeo, a national park, and a photo studio where we posed as cowboys. For the price of a movie ticket, you, too, can climb on board a virtual time machine by seeing Sweetgrass.

While Australians have a whole genre of “sheep films” that are still seen as integral to their national identitymost famously from Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960) to Chris Noonan’s Babe (1995)Americans’ image of livestock is stuck in polished Hollywood portrayals of cattle drives in the far past, culminating in the epic Lonesome Dove miniseries.

Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor intended to update that image when they set out for Montana in 2001 to follow the Allesteds and their shepherds. There, the Norwegian-American family was continuing four generations of tradition, raising a herd of sheep on their 15,000 acre ranch and taking them 150 miles to summer pastures up in the AbsarokaBeartooth Mountains each year. But by the time the filmmakers looked through most of the 200 hours of footage, the project had become an elegy to the past. With bittersweet irony, they had captured the last sheep drive through the American wilderness. Sweetgrass is an extraordinary piece of visual anthropology that is as beautiful and involving as it is informative about a threatened way of life.

The audience arrives at the Allested ranch without a guide or narration, and with only a bit of scene setting and concluding explanation. The daily toil unfolds on screen with the rhythm of the seasons—winter feedings, spring shearings, then the birthing and nursing of lambs. City folks will strain to overhear conversations among the workers to figure out what they are doing so brusquely and efficiently all day and into the night, and why, but the scampering lambs become irresistibly entertaining.

This is just the prologue. Then the trek begins. In a festive atmosphere, the whole town of Big Timber, in Sweet Grass County, turns out to help move the sheep along the first roads. It will take five weeks to guide the sheep a hundred miles up to the grassy plateau. When the camera casually looks up from hides, hooves, and the hard work, there are stunning views of sunrises, sunsets, rain, and snow-capped mountains as far as the lenses can see.

Modern technology adds sounds that become as important to the experience as the overwhelmingly beautiful sights of Big Sky Country in all its summer glory. CastaingTaylor placed eight wireless microphones around the isolated tents of the herders he lived with, which could pick up sounds a mile and a half away. Of course, there’s coyotes, bleating, and chirping. But surprisingly, the climactic sound is a lonely cowboy’s plaintive phone call to mom. It will still take him, his exhausted co-workers, and those darn sheep three weeks to return home in the fall.

We don’t learn anything about the falling market prices for lamb and wool, the difficult financial future of the family farm, the controversy about private use of public national forest lands, and, fortunately, we can’t smell the pungent sheep or feel the 110 degree heat. But it would be unthinkable for any history or social studies class covering the story of homesteading the West, let alone those learning labor and agricultural economics, to not see Sweetgrass. While the animals will have the same general appeal as emperor penguins for kids and adults, the grizzled herders’ salty language toward the end of the frustrating drive could unfortunately keep some younger audiences and timid teachers away from this enthralling tribute to living history. Bleep them over with “baas” and this is a stirring trip to the Old West for everyone to get on board. Nora Lee Mandel
January 5, 2010



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