Radcliff's Reviews: Sweetgrass


Our resident critic, Matthew Radcliff is back with a new review. Radcliff from Paignton Pictures, who updates the Documentary Round-Up list of docs screening around the DC area, provides occasional reviews of documentaries you should know about. This time around it's Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaign-Taylor's Sweetgrass. The film will be playing at the AFI Silver on March 20 at 3pm as part of the Environmental Film Festival.  It opens for a limited theatrical run at Landmark's E Street theater on May 21.






The opening shots of wind-blown snow and rusted-out cars, accompanied by the sound of clanging bells, gives way to close-ups of sheep chewing and pushing each other to get to the food pellets.  Then one sheep looks into the camera and as if she can sense the audience staring at her, she stiffens with fright.  The rest of this amazing documentary will feature these sheep as a backdrop on which the filmmakers paint a portrait of a fading tradition, where ranching families drive their sheep herds into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains to graze on the federally owned lands that they have rented for generations.  The Allested family is one of the last to continue the tradition, driving their sheep around 150 miles each summer after shearing and lambing season.




We are privileged to enter the shearing sheds and experience the speed at which the shearers work, and see in close up how they remove the wool in one piece without harming the animal.  The lambing process is never perfect, and the filmmakers show us the efforts made to get ewe€™s to adopt lambs that are not their own.  At one moment of rest, we are treated to a shepherd€™s cowboy joke.

As the Allesteds and their hired hands drive the sheep through town, and up into the mountains, we see some really spectacular vistas.  [Author's Note: I lived in Montana for a spell, and have been to the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, which are as spectacular as this film paints them.]  Along the way, we also feel the beautiful and terrifying kind of claustrophobia induced by trees and fog obscuring your visibility.  The entire family, with children, too, comes along for a portion of the drive.  Each has their own sheepdog as they try to keep the herd together through the forested hillsides.

While the scenery is breathtaking, with white specks of sheep dotting the hillsides, the real focus of the film is on the humans behind the sheep.  Two shepherds spend the summer out on the grazing lands, keeping the flock together and keeping them moving to new pastures.  A young buck as well as a grizzled veteran, who is prone to catching catnaps with his hat pulled low over his eyes.  Together they keep an eye out for beers and wolves, spend their time chasing after the sheep, and rarely seem to even notice the spectacular landscapes.  After one particular ear-bending, profanity-laden plea (seriously, be forewarned about the language) for the sheep to stay together, the younger shepherd calls his mother from the mountain top and breaks down into tears.  Even his dog, he says, doesn€™t want to get out of bed in the morning.

At the end of the summer, they drive the sheep down the mountain, through the town, and back to the ranch.  The old hired hand, when asked what he will do now that his job is finished, just shakes his head and chuckles.  One wonders how long he can continue to make the trek, but at the same time, it is all too clear that the job will disappear before he does.  The filmmakers, both highly-regarded visual anthropologists, have produced a lasting document of this dying tradition.




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