About the Film
“Is Sweetgrass even a movie about sheep? Not in the sense that March of the Penguins is about penguins. There’s hardly a frame in Sweetgrass without a specimen of Ovis aries bleating, grazing, or even gazing into the camera, yet the educational and didactic rhetoric that typically characterizes entries in the “animal documentary” genre is noticeably absent. Diverging from the cutesy aesthetics that made Luc Jacquet’s penguin exposé an accessible, international hit, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor taken a far more empirical approach. There is no voice-over narration or “talking head” commentary, and until the very end of the movie there are no explanatory intertitles, either. Instead, they have crafted an ambient narrative in the cinéma vérité tradition that demands patient observation from the audience, but also rewards their attentiveness.
Documenting the journey of two sheepherders and their massive flock over the mountains of Montana, the movie is finely attuned to the intense physicality of the undertaking. It is less interested in explaining the conventional 5 W’s and 1 H (who/what/when/where/why and how) than in the imagistic expression of the process from start to finish. An opening pastoral and undeniable adorable sequence of the sheep bathed in nature’s quiet (and the vague hum of a digital camera) is first subtly disturbed by the sound of an approaching ATV, and later shattered by the violent sounds and gestures of the shearing of coats. As though to curb any simplistic political reading, there follows a sequence of shots as the farmers assist with sheep pregnancies and tend to needy babies. This wide array of sights and sounds sets up the complex, interdependent relation between man and animal that will only deepen as the two groups journey together across the Beartooth Mountains.