"I am the last guy to do this and someone ought to make a film about it." That's what rancher Lawrence Allested said to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash in 2001 about his family's practice of herding their sheep long distances up a Montana mountain range for summer pasture. Castaing-Taylor and Barabash—a husband and wife team, both filmmakers and anthropologists, now headquartered at Harvard—agreed and over the last decade have made nine films about the final years of sheepherding on the Allested Ranch. Most of these films will undoubtedly serve the academy well for many years to come. But one of them, Sweetgrass (now available on DVD), has been edited and released for general audiences. And it is sublime, a poetic elegy to the American West and the way we once were.
Like the lilting Norwegian accent that still marks their speech, the Allested family still utilizes a permit to graze sheep in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness that has been passed down through several generations. Every year, the family and their hired hands have goaded their herd up the mountains, fording streams, navigating rock slides, fending off bears. The practice is as arduous as the terrain is beautiful, and this push provides the surprisingly dramatic and comedic heart of Sweetgrass. It's surprising because the drama of the documentary sneaks up on you. The filmmakers use the lightest of touches, allowing the warp of and woof of life on the hoof—animal and human—to unfold before you without narration.
The comedy is perhaps less sneaky, given that it wears a bell around its neck. The sheep are the real stars of the show and one imagines that unlike their stoic Norwegian-American caretakers, they would all happily, ...1
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