September 30, 2009
During the Q&A for Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor indicated that they had spent three years filming sheepherding through the Beartooth Mountains on what had initially been conceived as a family activity for the summer because of a desire to capture the last time that a pair of ranchers - hailing from the one remaining sheep farm within three adjacent counties in rural Montana - would drive their flock to public lands to graze: a cultural capstone that would end up being deferred for another two summer pastures before the owners finally sold the farm and resettle to a larger, more remote farm near the Canadian border. In hindsight, this sense of romanticism towards capturing a dying way of life shapes the rigorous, painstakingly observed, panoramic form of the film as well. Initially, the film suggests kinship with Nikolaus Geyhalter's Our Daily Bread in its wordless images of farming as mass production, as sheep are herded into the barn at the end of the day, lambs are re-distributed among a group of nursing ewes to maximize nutrition, and ranchers shear rows of sheep with lulling efficiency. However, the film eventually breaks away from the economy of the paradigm as ranch hands, Pat and John set off into the mountains with their flock of sheep for the summer, capturing instead the vastness of the difficult terrain, constant threat of wildlife, physical toll, and boredom that define their everyday lives. Ironically, in the filmmakers' objective to shoot the landscape, sheep, and people with equal parity, what is lost is the sense of diurnal rhythm intrinsic in their ritual, where the passage of time is obscured by an editing strategy that heavily favors daylight over night time shots - the three year excursion unfolding in three days (a blurring of time that contributes to confusing sequences over John's apparent meltdown during a call to his mother and subsequently, while rounding sheep, after having seemingly spent only a day in the wilderness) - revealed only through the growth of new wool on sheep making their way down the mountain at the end of summer.