Counting Sheep

Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Sweetgrass, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes.

A FILM OF SUBTLE SHIFTS and slowly dawning disclosures, Sweetgrass documents with dispassionate rigor the two-hundred-mile journey undertaken by a group of sheepherders across Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. Eschewing narration, interviews, or any explicit intrusions of directorial viewpoint, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor fix their toiling subjects in exactingly framed, frequently static compositions set off against the backdrop of the varied, occasionally majestic landscapes of the herding trail.

In any nonfiction film that feints Wisemanian objectivity, the shaping of the material assumes principal importance, and in Sweetgrass the relative straightforwardness of the narrative—thirty minutes of shearing and lambing followed by a linear account of the journey—obscures several important focal shifts. In the early, preparatory scenes, the emphasis is strictly on process: the way an ewe is made to feed a newborn, how a row of hands shave their charges. The men themselves are beside the point; if any faces emerge from the mechanical process, it’s those of the sheep, striking dryly humorous expressions. But as the party sets out on its trek, the film’s attentions gradually transfer to the workers and, as the group begins to dwindle, to the two increasingly harried herders charged with tending the flock the rest of the way.

While any project that pits perfectly framed landscapes against the plight of the working poor has its ethical work cut out for it, Sweetgrass makes a virtue of the potentially thorny setup. By juxtaposing a frustrated worker’s profanity-laced tirades with some of their most heart-stopping visuals, the filmmakers make the audio/visual contrast sufficiently explicit so that, while foregrounding their own (and the viewer’s) privileged position, they’re able to evoke the opposing roles the landscape plays for audience and subject.

After the journey, the film makes a final shift into elegy: Just before a closing title informs us that the Montana trail is now closed, the camera fixes on one of the workers riding shotgun in a pickup truck. As he slowly, haltingly ponders what to do next, his words fade into the steady gravel roar of the country road and then into silence. Who would have thought it would take a formalist project about sheep to burrow so deeply into the secret sorrows of the working class?

Sweetgrass has its theatrical premiere January 6–19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.