So I have to admit, the first few notes I took while watching the documentary “Sweetgrass” consisted of writing “Wow, that’s a lot of sheep!” over and over again.
The documentary, which played at the Wisconsin Film Festival, follows ranchers as they take thousands of sheep on a 150-mile, three-month journey through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains in 2003. It’s a river of wool, an endless train of animals flowing through valleys, over hills, even down the main street of a small town. Wow, that’s a lot of sheep.
But as breathtaking as the visuals are, “Sweetgrass” very cleverly retrains our focus not on the beautiful landscape or the adorably cranky animals, but on the grizzled, taciturn sheepherders for whom this drive is not just a job, but a way of life that stretches back generations.
Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor never interview the herders, and never provide any real context for the drive until the closing titles, which contain a key piece of information that gives the entire film a sudden poignancy. That seems fitting; the herders rarely talk to each other, so why should they talk to the camera?
Instead, like lab scientists, the filmmakers sit back and observe, eloquently blending gorgeous pastoral images as we see the rancher’s long drive progress. There are some images that recall the iconic cowboy tradition, like one old hand who leans against a tree for a nap, his cowboy hat tipped low over his face. But occasionally the sense of timelessness is broken by a modern element, like the electronic beep of a cell phone as the ranchers keep tabs on each other and their flock.
While “Sweetgrass” moves slowly and can at times feel a little dull, once the viewer gets used to the gentle rhythms of the cowboy life, it’s engrossing. You develop an appreciation for the difficulty of the journey and the patience and fortitude it requires to deal with obstacles like the unforgiving terrain, lousy weather and the occasional predator attacking the flock.
In the last scene of the film, the drive is complete, and two ranchers are in their pickup truck, ruminating on what they might do next. They don’t have much in the way of answers. Herding sheep has been all they know, and “Sweetgrass” serves as an elegiac tribute to their tradition.