Monday, January 7, 2013

Sweet Sweetgrass' Baadasssss Ride!

I had long wanted to catch Sweetgrass, a documentary about the modern day dying American west that received minor attention upon its release in 2010 as well as screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival (I didn't see it there, sadly). It's hardly surprising that this film hasn't received a local release given documentaries that work in a strictly anthropological sense are an even harder sell than traditional ones that have been crafted around conventional narratives. Lacking narration, a musical score, or even on screen credits to inform the viewer of who is who, Sweetgrass comes from recordist Lucien Castaing-Taylor and producer Ilisa Barbash. Both work for Harvard and have a list of credits to their name that certainly sounds lofty and indicative of people who would have a film as boutique and yet wide-roaming as this (read the sixth paragraph of this New York Times review to see what I mean).

Filmed in purely observational manner, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash's film was filmed over three years - and took something close to nine years to complete, which sounds like a lot of time before considering their roles as educators - Sweetgrass covers the now defunct shepherd of thousands of sheep across the Montana summer grazing highlands. The film's final image is of an "in memoriam" tag, stating the Reisland-Allestad Ranch, the subject of this documentary, ceased to exist in 2004 after 104 years. It lends Sweetgrass (so named after Sweet Grass County, a part of Montana that this epic march covers) a pang of elegiac sadness, one that is accentuated by the beauty of the landscape. So beautifully filmed, a true environmental documentary about man and nature, it's made with as little interference as possible. Thanks to the blessed diegetic sound design of Patrick Lindenmaier and the refreshingly still camera, every shifting cloud creating a creeping shadow is amplified. With its ghost-like presence (only the occasional sheep seems to acknowledge the camera's existence) creating an almost ethereal atmosphere, the "last of America's cowboys" are given a farewell of heartbreaking simplicity.

I'd love to see this film on a double feature with Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. Both together (or alone, really, but together even more so) would send most audiences into a tailspin of boredom given the aversion to what's considered "slow" and "boring". However, much like Reichardt's captivating post-western trip along the Oregon Trail, Sweetgrass raises many questions. Why do these shepherds do what they (no longer) do? One sequence shows one such man on the telephone to his mother as he holds back tears telling her of the arduous journey he partakes every year. "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em," he says. The film also asks vital questions about man's interference in the circle of life, as well as our relationship to nature. All three - man, animal, nature - can be unforgiving, but the film's strength is in how it tells the tale of all of them, and does so with powerful simplicity.

The film is as rich in warm-heartedness as it is in heart-tugging sadness. Those gorgeous Montana mountains are as lush with beauty as always, and the way they have been photographed recall the work of a master landscape painter. Sweetgrass is the type of film where a highlight is a zoom in from a long shot into to that of a mountainside as the sight of a herd of sheep becomes clearer and clearer. It's a film where the action peaks with a bear hunt in the dead of night, in near pitch black. The images within are the kind that trains cinematographers and filmmakers would spend a lot of money to perfectly choreograph and lens (see below for examples), but here are as effortless as the spinning of the Earth. There's little that's conventional here for both fiction and non-fiction filmmaking, but what there is a sterling, evocatively made portrayal of a way of life that is all but extinct. A-

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