Thursday, September 23, 2010

"SWEETGRASS" -- The Movie

"The Sheepherder" by Bob Scriver

“Sweetgrass,” is a simple but profound “documentary” -- more like visual poetry really. A record of the last high country summer trailing of more than a thousand sheep near Big Timber which is near Yellowstone. This movie is dead center on the cross-hairs of two of my high values: on the one hand, abstract near-literary analysis and on the other hand raw sensory experience. Watch this DVD twice, first with the commentary off. Watch it like music: just letting it come but watching for the themes and the chords. Then after a while or on another occasion, watch it with the commentary to see what the makers saw. This is NOT like the usual breathless witlessness of young people from back east who gasp, “How beautiful!” “How spiritual! How privileged I am to be here!” and completely miss the danger, the inhumanness, the desperate edge.

Many of us have the iconic world of the sheepherder in our minds as a marker for freedom and fiefdom alone with our dogs where we can be heroes, as though a sheep (or bear) cares. And some see it in a jokey way as “Brokeback Mountain” where men too good for sheep at least have each other.

I’m going to include some jargony high-concept quotes from the web here, because it will have meaning for some, but what it boils down to is an attempt to get at the actual experience of life, to go deeper, reach the core through all the fancy theory that has bogged us down in the last decades in order to get at what the theory is meant to clear your eyes for. Not romantic, not composed, not making a point. It just IS. It’s not a Western and it’s not an anti-Western, though the makers talk about it in those terms afterwards.

* * *


Ilisa Barbash is the wife of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and of the Social Sciences at Harvard and the 
Director, Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL)


The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard is a unique collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Visual & Environmental Studies (VES). Harnessing perspectives drawn from the human sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the aim of SEL is to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original nonfiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence. As such, it encourages attention to the many dimensions of social experience and subjectivity that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone. SEL provides an academic and institutional context for the development of work which is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — that is conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ traditionally exclusive reliance on the written word. The instruction offered through SEL is thus distinct from other graduate visual anthropology programs in the United States in that it is practice-based, and promotes experimentation with culturally-inflected, nonfiction image-making.
Director, Film Study Center


“Visual representations from all cultures, such as sandpaintings, tattoos, sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics, paintings and photographs are included in the focus of visual anthropology. Human vision, its physiology, the properties of various media, the relationship of form to function, the evolution of visual representations within a culture are all within the province of visual anthropology.” What we make and what we see entwine.


“Castaing-Taylor’s work seeks to conjugate art’s negative capability with an ethnographic attachment to the flux of life.  He recently recorded Sweetgrass (2009), a film (produced by Ilisa Barbash) that is an unsentimental elegy at once to the American West and to the 10,000 years of uneasy accommodation between post-Paleolithic humans and animals. He is currently completing a related series of video and photographic Westerns that variously evoke the allure and ambivalence of the pastoral, including Hell Roaring Creek (2010) and The High Trail (2010). “ This is beyond idle tourism, penetrating into deep engagement.

If that’s too much for you, here’s a bit of more accessible interview.


An interview in the MARCH/APRIL 2010 issue of “Believer” magazine.


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. Barbash grew up in New York City; Castaing-Taylor in Liverpool, UK. The interview was conducted over email and the phone in December 2009.
—Peter Orner

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.
To read the rest of this piece, please purchase this issue of the Believer online or at your local bookseller.

“Salvage ethnography.” I live in the middle of it. Maybe I should be more intentional with a camera.

1 comment:

Byrd said...

I will be sure to look for "Sweetgrass". Thanks for writing about it.