Scene and herd: Artful ranching documentary Sweetgrass, with co-director Ilisa Barbash in person at screenings this weekend, captures a disappearing way of life.

West with 'Sweetgrass'

Dennis Harvey March 9, 2010

There will probably never be a theatrical release for a film by James Benning, the Southern California-based filmmaker who recently made one of his frequent Bay Area visits for a four-night series of works presented by San Francisco Cinematheque. Benning’s landscape-focused movies often consist of very long stationary shots (sometimes as long as ten minutes each) sans commentary, interviews, explanatory text, or any sound save live found ones. They’re extraordinary, if a little too “pure” for the average moviegoer–even most arthouse habitues.

Amazingly, however, the marital filmmaking team of Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have managed not only to score theatrical distribution but also make something of a splash with Sweetgrass, a new documentary opening this weekend that is almost as hypnotically austere in style and content as the films in Benning’s oeuvre.

Ilisa Barbash appears in person with the film at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley in a copresentation of The Believer magazine and the San Francisco Film Society’s Environmental Film Series, which is supported by the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Sweetgrass simply records a way of American working life as it draws to a close. Since the 1800s ranchers have driven their herds high into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness for summer pasturing. But as Castaing-Taylor explained over the phone last week, “Eighty years ago there would be as many as thirty separate bands of sheep, or 50,000 animals, going up the mountains, and in addition there were Indian hunting camps in the summer. So it used to be this incredibly sociable place for the herders. But the whole economy of sheep ranching has gone downhill. Meanwhile, grizzly bears since 1975 and grey wolves since 1995 have been on endangered lists, so herders can no longer kill predators.”

As a result, what became “more of a solitary pursuit” grew increasingly unfeasible. So Sweetgrass, shot between 2001-03, may prove the last record of one long chapter in American history.

The filmmaking couple, who met in grad school at University of Southern California two decades ago before moving to Berkeley and finally Harvard (where they both currently hold academic posts in the visual anthropology field), were at the time teaching in Colorado. Already fascinated by issues of conflict between land rights and environmentalist concerns, they found out about Montanan Lawrence Allstead and his clan of “stubborn Norwegians” who “derived a tremendous amount of pride out from the sense of tradition in being the last people doing this.” ‘This" being the arduous annual 150-mile trek on horseback and foot, with dogs and hired hands, that gets variably cooperative sheep to remote grazing lands.

Castaing-Taylor–a Liverpudlian weaned on “urban decay”–found out just how arduous it is. After going on his first sheep drive, he returned 20 pounds lighter and in need of double foot surgery. (Barbash, raised on Hollywood Westerns and thus eager to immerse herself and burst stereotypes of the American West, nonetheless had to stay behind. Since their young children couldn’t be dragged on a rough epic trek through treacherous terrain, amidst predatory wildlife, she filmed lower-altitude doings of the ranching community instead.)

The 200 hours of footage emerging from that and two subsequent herding seasons took different forms over many years of editing. Eight separate projects were designed, like the couple’s prior films, primarily for academic use and museum/gallery display.

Then there was a ninth, Sweetgrass itself, their first effort intended for general audiences. Barbash recalls originally “We weren’t very ambitious about what this project would be, who it was going to reach. It’s had a much bigger life than we expected. It’s been tremendously gratifying to see people moved by these landscapes, and the hard work the ranchers and hired hands perform.” Critical raves from The New York Times on down have made the feature a surprise hit.

Yet Sweetgrass makes no concessions to a wider audience–the sole attempt at contextualization comes via closing title cards that Barbash says they "tried to keep as minimal as possible.” Showing ranch chores in its early going, the film takes a very long time before anyone is heard speaking (bleats excluded). There’s zero narration, no asking questions of the few human subjects, not even a faint whiff of editorializing.

“We realized the interaction between sheep, dogs, horses, landscape and people could tell the story,” Castaing-Taylor says. “We try not to spoonfeed the audience, asking a certain amount of patience and forbearance from them. We’re lucky we’re academics, so we got to make the film on our own terms.”

Despite that minimalist approach, Sweetgrass has plenty of grandeur–in Castaing-Taylor’s ravishing photography of the spectacular Montana scenery–as well as humor, poignancy and character involvement. One hired hand unleashes a Christopher Bale-worthy profane rant at his underperforming dogs; an Allstead family member is reduced to tears during a cellphone call to mom as his herding tasks grow almost unendurably grueling. “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate ‘em, and that’s what it’s gettin’ to–I’m hatin’ ‘em,” he laments.

Then there are the sheep themselves, whom Castaing-Taylor had previously thought of mostly as “allegorically overdetermined beasts in mythology, deeply related to Jesus Christ for instance. Plus proverbially the world’s dumbest animal.” After prolonged exposure, he realized they are “physical beasts with individual differences–some are ornery, some are nice.”

He admits, “If I said, ‘Let’s go see a two hour film about sheep,’ you’d laugh.” Yet what he experienced in the mountains was “so weird, amazing…this incredibly intimate relationship between humans and animals, nature and culture. It was such a totally different life from down in the flatlands, I didn’t know if we’d able to do justice to it.”

Ilisa Barbash appears in person Fri/12 at the Lumiere, SF, 7 and 9:45 p.m. shows, hosted/moderated by the San Francisco Film Society; Sat/13 at the Lumiere, SF, 7 and 9:45 p.m. shows hosted/moderated by The Believer magazine; Sun/14, 4:50 and 7:15 p.m. shows, with an informal meet-and-greet with Barbash in the Lot 68 lounge. More at SFFS and Landmark..

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