For nearly twenty years, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have sought to depict, as honestly as possible, the beauty and ache of actual lived experience. In their new film, Sweetgrass, the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based couple examine the world of raising sheep and sheepherding in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, in south-central Montana. This pointedly unsentimental and often startlingly intimate film provides, without commentary, an everyday view of life on a ranch and up in the mountains where three thousand sheep are being driven to feed—for the last time. Sheepherding is relentlessly grueling work, and the film, simply by getting out of the way, allows for viewers to experience this hard labor firsthand. Sweetgrass was an official selection at the 2009 New York and Berlin film festivals and opened theatrically at the Film Forum in New York City this January. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor met in film school at USC in the late 1980s. Barbash is a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and Castaing-Taylor is director of Harvard’s new Sensory Ethnography Lab, and a professor of Visual & Environmental Studies and of Anthropology. Their latest book is The Cinema of Robert Gardner (Berg, 2008), a comprehensive look at the man many consider the father of ethnographic filmmaking. One of Barbash and Castaing-Taylor’s previous films, In and Out of Africa, a provocative take on the African art trade shot in the Ivory Coast and New York, raised important questions about what it means to be authentically “African,” and who decides. Barbash grew up in New York City; Castaing-Taylor in Liverpool, UK. The interview was conducted over email and the phone in December 2009.
THE BELIEVER: What I especially appreciate about Sweetgrass is that, like the best literature, it refrains from overexplaining. The film opens and we immediately descend into this world of sheep and sheepherding. But why sheep? How did you get started with this project?
ILISA BARBASH: We were teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in film and anthropology, and looking for local topics. When we found out that a Montana rancher was the last in the county to be driving his sheep up into the mountains, we thought it might make a great film topic. It was close enough to be feasible, in a beautiful area, and involved some drama. We also loved the fact that it was the last of something. It’s a hackneyed and by now totally discredited trope of ethnographic filmmakers to film cultures on the wane, or in their death throes— it’s called salvage ethnography. I don’t mean to sound callous about the tragedy of these disappearing life ways, nor to denigrate the importance of documenting them. I did, however, enjoy the irony of finding such a moment in such a modern setting in my own backyard.
LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR: I went up there in the spring of 2001 and stayed for a week, wondering if there might be a movie there. I wasn’t sure, but we decided to devote a summer to it as a family. It was an amazing experience for us all. I ended up falling in love with the people, just as I was falling in love with the West at the time. The landscape, the freedom, the aesthetics of the space—everything about it bowled me over. As a European, I could never get over the sheer scale of the Absaroka Beartooths, the fact that there could be anywhere so remote in the lower forty-eight. It takes them four to five weeks to trail the sheep from the ranch to the basins—about eighty miles, on hoof the whole way. In the Alps and the Pyrenees these days, they’re trucked up to the pasture. And here we are in twenty-first-century USA.
BLVR: A striking aspect of Sweetgrass is its patience. There’s this haunting shot in the opening sequence before the credits: A lone sheep is chewing. His face is in profile to the camera. Then, slowly, he turns and stares directly into the camera, his ears wide. For lack of any better way to put it, you captured the dignity of this animal’s individual soul. How did this particular shot come about?
LCT: She, not he! Cats are female, dogs are male, and sheep are female! Actually, it really is an ewe. I would camp out for days, and sometimes nights, with the sheep in winter to get them used to me, and let me get close, and so I could gather some sense of what winter was like for them. We probably have twenty hours of rushes of sheep in the snow. There’s a certain frisson when such an animal— well, it’s unsettling—when this animal returns your gaze. What is she thinking? How foreign do I look to her? Or, in a movie theater, what on earth does she make of all of us weirdos, sitting, quasi-immobilized, in a darkened space, for no apparently nutritional or otherwise productive purpose, staring at a two-dimensional screen? I came to love them too, the ornery sons of bitches. They’re actually amazing animals, almost as smart as pigs.
BLVR: How do you think you avoided being nostalgic, especially when it is, as you say, the last of something?
IB: Well, for one thing, we don’t have too many people bemoaning the fact that this is the last sheep drive.
BLVR: What’s the attraction of not having interviews, talking heads, voice-overs, etc?
IB: Sweetgrass is all about experience, the experience of the sheep drive, the ranch, the herders, the seasons, and even the sheep. The minute one starts to explain something in a voice-over or even on camera, an audience ceases to watch as attentively as before, and stops listening to the sounds of what is really happening. Some may feel the audience gets less information that way, but we’d say that in fact they get more.
LCT: Well, words are the curse of the academy and of documentary alike. And of interviews! There’s this basic but paradoxical distinction between fiction and documentary: in fiction films we see people going about their lives almost entirely as if the camera were not present, whereas in documentary we hardly ever see people living their lives in any subjectively meaningful or rich way—we hear them tell us about their lives, report on their lives—their opinions, feelings, experiences—after the fact. But few documentaries seek to emulate fiction filmmakers’ investment in the full magnitude and messiness and ambiguity of lived experience. In part because it’s plain hard to go there in documentary. But existence and reality are so much richer than what can be evoked through expository prose in interview like settings.
BLVR: In a world where everything feels so fast, this film slowed me way down. And yet there’s a great deal of story in this film. How’d you do it?
LCT: Ah, but stories, even the shaggiest of them, always have some speed. The Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov has a species of patience that’s remarkable for an artist who’s still invested in narrative. James Benning’s recent landscape films, like 13 Lakes, 10 Skies, RR, and Casting a Glance—and Sharon Lockhart’s intricately orchestrated Goshogoaka, Teatro Amazonas, Pine Flat, and Lunch Break—are all way slower. Compared to their work, Sweetgrass is superspeedy. But to get to your question, sure there’s a story, a pretty rudimentary one. We follow these animals—ovine, canine, equine, and human—up into the mountains and down again. Yet even that was almost too much for us. There’s quite a bit of forward momentum, and at times some pretty frenetic sensory intensity, when they’re trailing up into the mountains, and this can lead to a kind of truncated attention span—the moment you provide some narrative or some drama, it creates the expectation of more. But we didn’t want narrative to dominate; it forecloses other forms of aesthetic experience.
IB: For me, the moments in which we took the most risks are in the editing. As Lucien says, the story itself is simple and conventional enough: the sheep drive, the journey as the centerpiece of the film, and a year in the life of the ranch as the setting. The tricky part was finding those moments within and without that narrative structure that conveyed a sense of what it was like to be there. We had to force ourselves to allow actions to play out as long as they possibly could. The instinct of most editors would be to cut many of our shots much earlier than we did. Once an action seems completed—or once a fragment of it can stand for the whole—then a film usually moves on. We deliberately chose, with the shooting and then with the editing, to linger as long as possible, so that if the audience trusts us enough to relax, and just watch, the experience will pay off.
BLVR: I want to ask you about the feeding scene early in the film. The camera is down there with the sheep as they munch. How were you able to get so close? Did they notice you?
LCT: It’s winter, it’s cold, and they’re hungry. They spend their days scraping through the snow in search of the species of grass they like to eat. In the spring when new shoots are just coming up, they have an amazing sense for where to dig for food. In this case, Lawrence, the rancher, had put out the cake (these cubes of oats, molasses, and various minerals and nutrients) and they’re ravenous, and they run to it. Because I was lying on the ground, only the ewes in the foreground could see me; you can see that some of those that emerge from behind are startled when they suddenly spy me there. But they’re hungry, the cake tastes good, and there’s safety in numbers, right?
BLVR: The sheepherders are depicted going about their daily chores, and they seem so comfortable in front of the camera. How did this happen?
LCT: There’s a freshness to observation when you’re encountering people and places for the first time. You know how it is when you’re traveling or meet a stranger—you often share intimate details that you wouldn’t with an acquaintance or a friend. And for them, I was a total greenhorn—speaking a kind of accented English that was barely comprehensible, clueless about sheep and ranching, always in the way, and so on. They were amazingly patient with me. Sometimes in the evenings in the ranch house we’d be eating supper and (without the camera rolling) I’d be asking them question after question about their lives. I’d guess that was more exhausting and at times irritating than any physical interference caused by the camera.
BLVR: So you’re up there in the mountains with the two herders, the camera’s always rolling, and yet you wouldn’t know it… I had to keep reminding myself there was someone there, catching all this stuff.
LCT: We kept a few moments in the film when people are responding to me or the camera, but most of the time they’re more or less indifferent to it. Initially, Pat and John were naturally quite self-conscious and camera-shy, but as the weeks wore on, all the filmmaking apparatus just became an inescapable and largely uninteresting part of our lives. Someone who saw the film recently told me they felt there were more instances of reflexive acknowledgement of the camera by the sheep than by the people.
BLVR: And the camera? How was it with the camera up there?
LCT: I wore a ridiculous-looking harness strapped around my upper body, with an aluminum arm that came up my spine and over my head, which the camera was suspended from. In part this was just to switch the weight of the camera from my arms to my waist, but because I wore it pretty much day-in day-out, from dawn to dusk, it and the camera became a kind of prosthetic extension of myself.
BLVR: Sweetgrass shows much of the great beauty of south-central Montana, but it also doesn’t shy away from the harshness of this kind of work. I’m thinking of the scene just after a lamb is born. Other young lambs are thrown on top of it. Was that a tough moment to shoot?
LCT: It was very easy to film, if memory serves. I was close, there was a lot of action, all intense and tactile and utterly absorbing. The kinship is a peculiar one, mediated through and through by human culture, as the man pulling them out is mixing and matching the lambs according to howmuch milk the mothers have. The bum lambs—the orphans—have to be kept circulating. If you wait more than about twenty-four hours you can’t convince a ewe that a lamb born to another is hers, no matter how much of her amniotic fluid you smother over it.
BLVR: And yet the birth scene with the men differs significantly from the one at night where we see only a single woman alone in the barn.
IB: I always found a certain irony in this idea of men trying to figure out how to nurse lambs. You know, they’re running all over the place trying to find a supply of milk for the lambs, if a particular ewe is not able to nurse her lamb. So I always found that moment of men trying to nurse very poignant. Elaine, as you say, is alone. Everything is much more quiet.
BLVR: What about that sound she makes?
IB: Oh, it’s like a little peeping sound. She’s trying to imitate the sound of a lamb to get the sheep to come to her. Rather than forcing the sheep, she’s trying to cajole it.
BLVR: As a fiction writer, I was struck by the dialogue in the film. There’s not a lot of it, but what is there is so dead-on. In that moment just after the lambs are thrown, one of the men says, “We need some mothers for them.”
IB: I’m glad that the beauty and intricacy of the dialogue patterns came through. Among the last scenes to get cut in the later stages of editing were dialogue scenes. And they weren’t just scenes that gave more obvious ethnographic information, like a conversation about Norwegians and the Irish working together, or jokes told by a Norwegian rancher about “stupid Norwegians.” They were scenes in which the rhetorical style of cowboy stories is all laid out. We cut out a long shaggydog tale of Uncle Snooks and Aunt Edna and another relative who was a celebrated horse thief, told between Pat and John—who are actually cousins—both of whom had surely heard that story a million times before, but laugh at the same moments at each telling. I miss those scenes, but we felt that too much dialogue stopped the film short and disrupted its flow.
BLVR: There’s also this moment where a guy is having trouble putting together a stovepipe and asks for the vise grip. He says, “I need a…” And then he breathes. Then he says, “Any idea where the vise grip—” and then he stumbles on his words: “… is?” I’m not sure why this moment affected me so much, but if I could get a moment like that on paper, to let a moment like that simply be—
IB: It’s true that most documentaries try to make dialogue as clear as possible, to the point of editing in and out individual words—especially in interviews, hidden under cutaways—in order for sentences to make sense, or to say what they want them to say. We’re not striving for literal clarity in that sense here. We’re trying to convey a sense of what that moment was like, the midsentence pauses and grammatical volte-faces, and his sense of frustration with the stovepipe, with which it’s hard not to empathize. It’s an experience all of us have had.
BLVR: There are some memorable shots of the snow falling on the sheep. Can you talk about how you got those shots?
IB: We knew we wanted to shoot the sheep in the snow. We were down in Colorado for a couple of winters, waiting for snow reports for Montana. And the second we heard one, Lucien would jump in his vehicle and drive up. Many of them turned out to be just flurries, and the footage was disappointing. It’s not for nothing that you never hear a Montanan say that snow is “falling.” It’s always “flying.” Later that year he went up to shoot shearing, and there was a surprise snowstorm. So that scene of the shivering sheep was in some ways just serendipity.
BLVR: Sound is so crucial to this film. You can shut your eyes and just listen sometimes and see so much of it in your head.
LCT: I think you’re probably right that sound is more important to Sweetgrass than most spectators realize. We actually even spent more on sound equipment than camera equipment. Basically, almost all the sound was recorded by a mono microphone (pretty low quality) mounted on the camera, and from up to eight wireless lavaliers that I’d place on different people, and occasionally a sheep, a horse, or a dog. They were very expensive, and pretty fragile, so we couldn’t afford to do it as often as we’d have liked.
BLVR: Did your opinion of sheep change over the course of filming?
LCT: The longer I spent with them in the mountains, the less allegorical and the more real they became— the more they grew on me, and the more intrigued I became with their experience of the world. We forget, but they’ve also been hugely significant in human history. They were the world’s first domesticated stock animal, ten thousand or so years ago, during the neolithic revolution in Mesopotamia. They also played a major role we tend to forget in the “discovery” of the Americas—all the conquistadors’ voyages were funded by the Spanish crown’s taxes on wool. And they were also central to the development of modern capitalism, with the clearing of the northern English and Scottish Highlands forcing the emigration of the human population to the New World. Anyway they’re great animals, somehow at once domesticated and undomesticated. Unbelievably willful. But you have to spend time with them to realize how interesting they are. Initially for city folks like us, and most moviegoers, I think they’re over-determined as bit players in a pretty postcard of some bucolic arcadia.
BLVR: The great late Montanan novelist A. B. Guthrie wrote a brief unpublished piece called “Occupation Sheep herder.” It was found among his papers a few years ago. Guthrie writes:
The sheepherder—we do not call them shepherds—has his responsibilities. He must protect his band from foxes, wolves, coyotes, and other predators like town dogs off their leashes. He must see that the ewes don’t stray too far and, in spring, that frolic lambs don’t gambol up a draw and disappear. Yet he must not close-herd them else they do not profit. He must see them all, fanned out and on good graze, and yonder is good water. His first commandment though is: Do not desert for any reasons!
LCT: Guthrie’s ecology is a little different—he’s talking about life on the plains, ranches with neighbors and electricity and a town not too far away. Of course there are no town dogs up in the mountains, and foxes are rarely a worry. There are grizzly bears aplenty. But he captures the biblical obligations of the job, and the tension between watching over the sheep and letting them spread out, leaving them to their own devices. It’s definitely grueling, and with luck that comes through in the film, with Pat—his worries that his knees are failing him—and his desire to be able to go on enjoying the mountains. Herding three thousand sheep by yourself with just a dog or two is no mean feat.
BLVR: And the physical demands of filming in these conditions?
LCT: A crew of one, at eleven thousand feet, with grizzly bears everywhere. I would sometimes collapse while trying to keep up with the sheep when trailing in and out of the mountains. A few times I worried I might have a heart attack. When trailing in, we’d often have to get up at three or three-thirty, to be ready to break camp before dawn—the sheep will bog down when it gets too hot—and I’d have had maybe four hours’ sleep if I was lucky, and have to pack up my tent, and prep my panniers for a pack horse, and get all the recording equipment ready by breakfast at four-thirty or five. I thought I was younger than I was. I was limping when I came down that first summer, and I was eventually diagnosed with trauma induced advanced arthritis, and would go on to need double foot surgery. My days of filming without a tripod, or out of a wheelchair, are numbered.
BLVR: Sweetgrass shows us the majesty of the Beartooth Mountains—but thank god this isn’t a nature film. Not at all. For me, above all this was a film about the work, how damn hard it is.
LCT: Yes. I think it’s all about work. I don’t think we thought that when we started it. We knew it was about a tradition. We knew it was about sheep and so on, but you know, going back to your question about the picturesque or the pastoral, how many viewers or readers of pastoral painting or poetry get a sense of the enormity of effort, of sheer human and animal endeavor, that’s involved? Working with these wireless lavaliers, you become privy to everybody’s sounds, their breathing, and difficulties, and gasping, and you realize just how much energy is being expended in order to make this possible, and how exhausting and also how exhilarating it is at times. Pat and John aren’t recreators, they’re not tourists. This work defines their life, it defines their relationship to the land.
IB: And I think we set a tone, early on, that what you see is not going to be cute little lambs behaving in such a way that you are going to want to run out and visit this farm. Everything we show is about the nitty-gritty of life on the ranch, and then we get up to the mountains in which you can look around, and the single moment where the camera really stops and gazes in a 360-degree angle is the moment when Pat is talking about how difficult his experience actually is.
BLVR: That’s when he’s having his serious meltdown, right? When the sheep wander up a cliff they aren’t supposed to? And he’s swearing at the sheep, calling them every name he can think of, whores, cocksuckers, bitches… Still, even as he yells, it’s more out of desperation than anger—at least, it seemed so to me. But we don’t see him then, we only hear him. Why is that?
LCT: Because I put the camera down in the grass and ruined the shot, but the sound was still good. But it was also a deliberate choice when we edited. It would have been unremitting to stay with Pat alone all those minutes. A total tearjerker. And the slow pan left across the landscape allows one—at least we hope—to both stay with Pat and his travails, but also to go outside him, to lose oneself in the beauty of this, as Bertrand Russell would say, “waste space”—to sense one’s insignificance before the immensity of those mountains.