A while back I wrote about frontier life on film, and I forgot to mention another really good watch: Sweetgrass. This is not necessarily a movie for people who are romantic about small ruminants, or for people who are easily bored. It shows the real thing: how sheep are farmed en masses, the old fashioned way, on the range in Montana. 

imageThis is one of those rare documentary-style films that has no dialog, or at least no planned dialog. It’s mostly just cinematography. And beautifully done, of course, since that was the focus of the film. It goes without saying, but also can’t be emphasized enough. Gorgeous.

There were times when you could hear snippets of conversation, but often it was vexingly just out of earshot, so to speak. Normally I’d be fine with this, but of course I was curious to know what was going on at times, so I found it a little frustrating. There are a  lot of periods of pure silence in the film, which is really effective in conveying what happens most in the life of a sheep and shepherd: nothing.

If you have the patience to watch it a second time through with the director’s comments turned on, then you can get a little more insight into what they were observing. But of course from a laymen’s point of view. Kirk was bored with it the first time through, so I couldn’t get him to tolerate the second, and we gave up on the director’s version after a bit.

The film starts out at the end of winter, with shearing, done by a traveling crew who does it out of a tractor trailer. It shows a little of the hardship of the newly shorn ewes finding meager shelter from a snowstorm at the side of a grove of trees. Tough beans, but the whole point of shearing ewes at this time of year is to purposefully make them sensitive to the weather, so when they lamb, they are inclined to seek shelter, for the sake of the lambs. Otherwise the not-known-for-cleverness ladies would feel all comfy in their wool coats, and lead their lambs to freeze in difficult weather, oblivious to the consequences.

The film quickly moves onto intensive barn lambing, the old-school way. I think I could have watched a whole two hours just of this because it lives up to its definition, intense. Madness, really. You can tell, they have newborn lambs coming out of their ears. Bummer lambs by the armload, being tossed around like ragdolls into garbage can lids, which serve as saucers, while the ranchers oven warm, hand feed and graft good lambs, and deftly skin dead ones to donate their hides to live orphans who need a new (fooled) mother. All the people are exhausted, and there is a little talking captured as a woman talks about how sleep deprived she is.

Most of the film focuses on the summer part of the sheep operation: trailing them to their mountain graze, and then the shepherding that happens there as they move them from one public graze land area to the next. It requires a lot of people, horses, border collies and guardian dogs to pull this whole thing off. As one could imagine, the endeavor looks tedious, rigorous, boring, stressful, and totally not worth whatever little it pays!

As the film starts you are tempted to feel sorry for the sheep, then it leads you to start to consider the plight of the shepherd. And maybe think, yeah, life is actually hard and terribly unfair, no matter what you are, man or beast. There is not a shred of romance here for either.

The film is frank in its portrayal of the frustration of predators. Despite having a passel of guardian dogs, they constantly struggle with finding freshly killed ewes, still kicking, especially in the dark. Wolves. They are up at night a lot, rifles ready, walkie talkies in hand, dealing with this burden. Sometimes the sheep go where they’re not supposed to and it’s an urgent rush to get them moving back onto legal pastures. It’s a monotony of day after day watching sheep, moving sheep, feeding dogs, saddling horses, unsaddling them, setting up camp, taking it down, terse conversation, and camping, camping, camping. And at one point in the film, the main family rancher guy, maybe in his thirties, has a meltdown and calls his mom from his cellphone on a mountaintop, whining that he just can’t take it anymore. I don’t blame him one bit. It’s telltale that this is the one clearly audible monologue bit they include in the film.

This thing, how wool comes to us (and lamb, too, since meat is a secondary aspect of what they produce), it’s not easy or trivial or pastoral or sweet. It’s fairly gritty. Sweet the grass may be, but the life is far from it.

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