Experiencing the Terrain

Directed by: Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Opening on Nov. 12
★★★ out of 5

After viewing the documentary Sweetgrass, the end credits explain what was just depicted: a 300 kilometre sheep-herding expedition through rural Montana. We are informed that shepherds have taken sheep to the rugged, uncivilized northwestern region of the state every spring since the 19th century. The movie compiles footage from 2001-03, the last journey of the last group of shepherds to do this.
The documentary begins on a farm with sheep standing around not doing much, then sheep eating, and then more sheep standing around.
There are no shots of humans for the first three minutes, and no dialogue between them for 15. Eventually the sheep are shaved in preparation for spring, and some give birth. Then they are rounded up, probably a couple hundred in total, and their journey can begin.

The country the shepherds herd through is sometimes rough, and never easy. They climb one mountain after another, only occasionally encountering a trail on one side or the other. Most of the actual grazing occurs on the mountainside, which is mostly clear of trees and shrubbery.

Throughout the journey the shepherds are rarely seen, and though the film is about moving sheep, everything takes a backseat to the gorgeous Salish Mountains. Shots of the mountains are plentiful, making up majority of the movie. Shooting was done on digital video, which gives the mountains a crisp, more natural look than film. The camera is often pulled back to fill the frame with as much scenery as possible. There are few close-ups, just of the shepherds resting.
The shepherds have very little screen time or dialogue; when they do speak to each other it is always quiet and frank. There is a sense that they blend into the enormous landscape. I imagine the job is a lot tougher than it looks. They only break monotone when they hatefully curse the sheep or the mountains. They don’t let their discontent show to each other, but their vexation from the sheep and mountains is the catharsis for long, taxing days, and what has probably been a life of hard labour. The longest scene of dialogue is when one of the
shepherds leaves to call his momma and whine.

Even though we don’t get to know the shepherds, I came to like and admire them for the work they do. They are like contemporary versions of the cowboys in Lonesome Dove. Their adventures aren’t quite as exciting, but they are real life adventurers.

I found the first half of Sweetgrass to be boring and tiresome.
However, I eventually fell into the movie’s quiet rhythm. The shots of the Montana backcountry are breathtaking and cast a spell over the movie. I grew up in Calgary and I’ve spent a lot of time hiking around the Rockies, so I’m a sucker for a movie that will take the viewer to that kind of environment.

I’m sad to say that the Alberta backcountry is gradually becoming more corrupted by highways and rural housing developments. The movie takes the viewer farther out than most of the places I’ve been able to go. The experience of Sweetgrass is much more profound than if you’d just looked at pretty pictures.

There is a feeling that we are side by side with the shepherds, experiencing their solitary existence in a place untouched by population. I imagine the experience for some audiences will be nothing more than how I felt during the first half. Audiences for whom the previous description appeals may find Sweetgrass to be an enjoyable window, worth the wait to sink into.

Sweetgrass plays at Cinematheque from Nov. 12-18.