Sweetgrass is one of the most beguiling documentaries I’ve ever encountered, a piece of visual anthropology that I can’t compare to anything else. It’s a piece of work that will likely alienate most viewers, but for those with patience and an interest in spare, direct storytelling, this exploration of sheep herders in the Montana wilderness will leave a major impression. While capturing the rituals of the shepherds as they herded their livestock through the Beartooth Mountains, the filmmakers covered stunning landscapes, and braved dangerous weather and the threat of various wild animals, including bears and wolves. As the shepherds make their journey, the film depicts the hardships that they face in their age-old occupation, which seems largely outdated in 21st century America. The film is from the husband and wife filmmaking team of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, who also created the strangely haunting fishing trawler documentary Leviathan, so if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what to expect from Sweetgrass. No dialogue, no pandering, no overt messages or speechifying; what you see is what you get.
My thing with cinema is this: TAKE ME SOMEWHERE I’VE NEVER BEEN. Well…I’ve never herded thousands of sheep through rocky and treacherous terrain, and I likely never will. But this film gives you an astonishing sense of how difficult this job is. Honestly…this documentary is a masterpiece of execution, showcasing simplicity at its finest, and offering up stark majesty on a genuinely grand scale. It’s also, intended or not, a deeply hysterical portrait of potential madness, and while the film takes a harshly unsentimental gaze at the shepherds and their animals, it’s never depressing or degrading. Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick would lose their minds over this piece of work, and I’m sort of shocked that Herzog didn’t get to this material first. Sweetgrass is an amazing deconstruction of the demands of the American cowboy and a stunning revelation into the bonds between human and animal. At various points, the camera literally stares into the souls of some of these animals, and it’s in these quiet moments that the viewer might have a religious experience, especially if they’re an animal lover; I was personally left agog by the entire effort. Sweetgrass is definitely up there with Winged Migration as one of the most fascinating animal documentaries that I’ve come across.