Monday, July 25, 2011

Mutton Mondays - "Sweetgrass"

I recently had the opportunity to watch a documentary on sheep ranching. The film is titled, Sweetgrass and although it is a purely observational film (aka sans narration) I found it interesting to watch.

I welcomed Aubrey Gallegos the Community Engagement and Education Department at POV to give a brief synopsis about the film. Hope you enjoy and check it out!

Here's Aubrey!

This summer, POV, a social issues documentary film series on PBS, is including in its 24th season line-up a film about a dying tradition in sheep ranching. Sweetgrass, which is now streaming on-line for free, follows the Allestad family who, in 2001, led three thousand sheep and five dogs through Montana's Beartooth Absaroka Mountains for the last time, due to public land grazing policies. Described by the filmmakers as "an unsentimental elegy to the American West, Sweetgrass follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed."


For a quiet film about sheep, Sweetgrass has stirred up quite a bit of conversation concerning its unique observational style, which does not mince around the realities of sheep ranching. Sweetgrass is a sensory ethnography, applying anthropological and ethnographical research methods to filmmaking in the telling of this real-life story. The film forgoes narration, even during the more startling scenes, such as the unsentimental sorting of lamb orphans to pair them up with ewes, docking tails, and shearing the sheep. The result is a meditative film, unadulterated by commentary, interviews, or explanation, that puts the viewers in the midst of these massive herds of sheep and the raw, solitary life of the people who lead them 150 miles through the mountains and back again.

In a Live Chat interview on POV, one viewer asked directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, “Were you ever concerned that the purely observational style of the film would lead some viewers to false or premature conclusions about the rough handling of the sheep by the herders?” Castaing-Taylor responded, “Not really. The advantage of observational styles is that they let viewers come to their own conclusions, rather than being spoon-fed something by a journalist or producer. Anyone can draw conclusions, false or true. Many urban folks whose experience of non-human animals is just of pets or in zoos have little idea of human-animal interactions over the last 10,000 years…Narration is a way to control and disempower the viewer, to tell them what YOU the filmmaker want him/her to think and know and feel. Fiction films don’t usually have an omniscient narrator or on-screen commentator. No reason why documentaries have to use narration as such a crutch either.” Barbash adds, “We did not want to tell people how and what to think. We have too much respect for viewers…We wanted people to sit back and watch the film for themselves and have their minds changed again and again...”

- Aubrey Gallegos, Community Engagement and Education Department at POV

This video is the first observational film I’ve watched. I do wish the video offered some narration, for purely educational purposes. One that doesn’t know sheep might misinterpret some parts of the movie, but I also understand the goal of the producers.

There are quite a few similarities between the family in the film and how we run our sheep. So if you are interested in getting an idea as to how our ranch is run or about the sheep ranching industry, this film is for you! 

If you’ve seen the film I would love to hear what you think. If you haven’t you can view Sweetgrass on-line here until October 4th.

I was not compensated for this post.


Anna said...

Oh I loved this film! I got it on my netflix sometime last year. I agree, I wouldn't mind some narration at times. I do agree it was kind of meditative. My husband's family ran sheep for decades and just got out of the business in 2005 and are strictly cattle people now but the Basque sheepherder in them is still there :)

City Life to Ranching Wife said...

Thanks for the comment Anna! Yes, I was dying for some narrative, but I blame that on my short attention span! ;) We have worked with some Basque sheepherders in California.

Farmchick said...

I might have to check this out. I love documentaries and the fact that this is silent is kind of intriguing.

Brittany said...

Sounds very interesting!!!

Jenny Glen said...

Yeah, I was wishing for some narrative too but only because people who didn't already know about the lifestyle might be confused about what was going on. I do love the part though where the young cowboy was crying to his mom about his horse and his dog. I think he didn't know what he was in for when he hired on. The solitude got to him. The other shepherd was great - always singing to the sheep and talking to his horse.

City Life to Ranching Wife said...

@Farmchick - let me know what you think if you do!

Brittany - it is! It's totally a different kind of fim.

@ Jenny - that part kind of made me frustrated because it's not like that for all herders. Our herders love the solitude of the mountains.

Jenny Glen said...

Oh, yeah, I think that young guy thought he was going to "cowboy" and he didn't realize that it's much more solitary with sheep. My husband and I figured he didn't know what he was getting into. But he probably reacted more like the average person would. I think you have to be a serene type of person who is comfortable with your self to be a herder.