What could be better than a Saturday afternoon spent closely observing a dying way of life out in the mountains of Montana? Beautifully shot over a period of years, without any narration on or off camera to guide you, "Sweetgrass" (9) show the life of sheep and sheep herders (the word "shepherd" simply does not capture the work depicted here) in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains of Montana. This particular herd was the last to graze there on a federal grazing permit during the spring and summer months, so what we are seeing is no more.
The film begins on the ranch itself, and almost the whole first half contains no human voices, just those of the sheep (which, since my childhood living across a dirt road from a sheep herd, have always sounded to me like every range of human voice making sheep sounds). It is stunning how loud the life of a sheep herder is--a constant cacophony of sound, and a constant chaotic swirl of animal flesh. The camera work here is so astute, and varied: sometimes you see what seems an undulating mass of wool; other times you feel as though you are among successive sheep faces nosing each other away from food pellets; then you see how roughly the sheep are accustomed to being handled as they submit to every manner of contorsion during shearing. A few lambs are delivered, with varying degrees of difficulty, and you see the assist the humans provide for eating and bonding between lambs and mother sheep. The rough treatment the sheeps accept makes sense when you see how the lambs are dragged and tossed around--and the care is often ingenuous, as when a man pulls a fresh lambskin over an orphan, in an attempt to fool a mother into nursing it as her own lost lamb.
Then you see the drive to the mountains, beginning with the massive herd pouring through the small local town. Life in the mountains is fascinating in its own right--the beauty of the scenery becomes terrible in its way, as the men must suffer the winds, the ruthless terrain, and the never-ending randomness of sheep behavior. One wonders at the chaos of it, and at how in a way unliveable that life is for the men; there's a particularly entertaining moment where one of the men whines about the sheep (whom he calls "bitches") and his bad knee to his mom on his cell phone. After a long stretch of the cacophony of the herd, the filmmakers pull back for a particularly long shot that shows again the brutality of the landscape. You can't even make out the sheep at first, until the camera slowly pans in enough to show that you've been looking at the entire herd.
Interestingly enough, this slow visual feast doesn't show a directing credit--it's the work of two Harvard academics, one the director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab and the other an associate curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum. They've given us a magnificent vision, and a beautiful work of art. You'll have another chance to catch it Tuesday night.
That's all I have time to write for now--but stay tuned for two more Day 3 reviews, including of my favorite film so far, "The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls" (9.5), a glorious documentary about a yodeling lesbian twin comedy act from New Zealand that I desperately want everyone to see. (You can, on Sunday or Monday afternoon--or put it in your queue.) On to church and then more movies!