When the married filmmaking team, Barbash and Cataing-Taylor, began filming a Montana family of sheepherders in the early part of the decade, their subject was an endangered species; by the time the picture had locked, endangered had progressed to extinct. In 2003 (when the bulk of Sweetgrass
was filmed), the Allesteds were the last ranchers still driving their sheep into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range on a grazing permit that had been handed down through the generations. They’ve since sold the ranch, which makes this documentary an ethnographic freeze-frame of a way of life now lost. But Sweetgrass
is no elegy; there’s no editorializing here, just a straightforward immersion in the day-to-day work of sheep farming and herding. The film loosely charts the seasons from shearing to lambing to summer pasturing, when Lawrence Allestad and right-hand man John Ahern drove a thundering herd of sheep 150 miles and up a mountain to feed for three months. Sweetgrass
’ unbroken shots of often-repetitive activity have a beguiling quality to them, their very monotony encouraging a deeper absorption and reflection, but hard facts aren’t easy to come by. The layout of the mountain camp, for instance, is a mystery, and the ranchers are mostly unidentified, with dialogue frequently muffled to the point of inaudibility. But the natural soundscape – of wind, sheep bleats, and dog barks – is a wonder, and the Big Sky pictorals dazzle, too. And then there’s calcified cowboy Ahern, shot pissing from behind, his pecker in one hand and a .45 in the other – a time-capsule keeper if ever there were one.