Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sweetgrass. (2010)
Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

This is a movie about the nature of sheep and the nature of the Montana mountain men who watch over them, guiding them along. "We all like sheep have gone astray..."

The best comparison I can think back to when considering Sweetgrass and its cast of sometimes docile, often willful sheep, and the sheepherders that put their lives on the line for them, is the 2003 nomadic Mongolian family film, The Story of the Weeping Camel. No, there is no messianic sheep to be found in Sweetgrass. But the film's lack of narration to cover over long silences, its similar pacing throughout, and quiet moments of genuine reflection on creation categorize the two similarly.

And that's a good thing.

Some reports around the web call Sweetgrass overly long and "boring." It would seem the bulk of these complaints come from the sixteen-and-under demographic. I have to admit I thought it would be quite fun to rant and rave about an hour and forty minutes of sheep -- there's nothing here but wandering, dirty, flea-ridden sheep! -- but the film I anticipated didn't turn out to be the one I watched. Yes, you can refer to this as a "glacial film", and with its lack of dialogue there is no doubt it has challenging moments. But the lack of dialogue here is better than some films that have too much. I'd rather watch sheep for an hour and forty minutes, which say much with no words, than spend another second with this weekend's horrible box office winner, The Other Guys, in which many people say too much for an excruciating hour and forty minutes -- none of it worth consideration or future remembrance.

"Glacial," it would seem, is a relative term.

Watching these creatures eat, get together in a flock and get into unified motion like cells in the blood or Sentinels in The Matrix, watching the birth of a little one and a mother who fights the nursing process, watching their gentle understanding during the shearing process (it's like they wanted that heavy insulation removed and trusted the sheepherders to get the job done), and the stubborn, ornery ways in which they wander away in group-think is like watching aliens on a faraway planet -- a non-understanding alien race capable of intelligence, but willing slaves to a planet relative, having their needs taken care of, trading wool for care. The human and sheep are in a symbiotic relationship, a commensal relationship which brings protection to an unprotected creature and benefits to the one willing to protect.

The sheepherders -- who are more like cowboys -- take a flock of 3000 on a 150 mile journey through mountain terrain. Their horses and dogs falter. Their sheep wander over canyons. Wolverines and bears are a constant night time threat. They get depressed, angry at the mountains, scared they won't make the trip. They curse and pray at the same time. One calls home to mom in a near cry -- his knee is hurt, and he's got a long way to go to complete the journey ahead.

A husband and wife team spent two years capturing the sheep on the journey. What they've caught is a dazzling visual feast. There is no CGI -- no talking sheep or dancing Montana bears to make you laugh and clock in early. This is film, the same way the medium began in the early part of last century. There's something wonderful about going back to nature, just as there is something wonderful about going back to film -- no computers, no tricks, no gimmickery.

Authenticity is the key to loving Sweetgrass.

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