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Live Chat with Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, filmmakers of Sweetgrass, and ranch matriarch Elaine Allestad answered viewers' questions on Wednesday afternoon. Replay the chat and see what they had to say!

POV: This live chat with Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor will begin at 2 PM Eastern Time. If you're here early, you can start asking questions or leaving comments for the filmmakers and we'll get to them as soon as the filmmakers are with us!

POV: We'll be starting the chat with Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Elaine Allestad from Sweetgrass in about 15 minutes. We're already queueing up your questions and comments, so if you have some now, please enter them!

POV: We're just about to get started. Remember, you can add your questions and comments at any time -- we will see them and we'll get to as many as we can!

POV: Hello Ilisa and Lucien! Thanks for taking a break from the office and filmmaking to chat with POV viewers.

Ilisa Barbash: Hi there

lucien castaing-taylor: Hi, I'm in New Bedford. Hope this gets through

POV: It did get through. Lucien, can you tell us what you're doing in New Bedford, MA?

lucien castaing-taylor: I'm making a new film from the home town of Moby Dick about commercial fishing

POV: Maybe we'll have a chance to talk about that later, but we have lots of questions already.

POV: And we want to say hello to Elaine from the Allestad Family!

Elaine Allestad: Hello everyone!

Ilisa Barbash: Elaine, what are you up to?

Elaine Allestad: I am spraying weeds on the lower Sweet Grass creek!

POV: Thanks for joining us Elaine from Montana!

POV: I'm going to start off with a few comment from our website and Facebook…

POV: Thomas Morro from Facebook: Fantastic film. I loved how the filmmakers let the ranchers, the workers, and the landscape tell the story.

POV: Lacey Serena James from Facebook: Enjoyed the program very much. Though I was hard pressed to explain some of the men's behavior to my 9 year old daughter. All I could say to her was that it was hard work & with little sleep sometimes we act differently then we normally would. She & I both look forward to watching it again, she had to go to bed before it was over :)

Ilisa Barbash: Thank you. I hope it wasn't the sheep who put your daughter to sleep and your that she gets to watch the rest of it.

POV: Our first question comes from Buford and it's probably a good one for Elaine.

Comment From Buford
What's the difference between a sheep herder and a cowboy? I've heard the two terms used interchangeably, but I've also herd (ha) people get up in arms about using the term cowboy to describe the people featured in Sweetgrass.

Elaine Allestad: There's a huge difference between cowboys and sheepherders. A cowboy deals with cows. They both ride horses. But cowboys do very little walking whereas sheepherders walk a lot.

Elaine Allestad: Knowledge of the animals is different. Not all cowboys could be sheepherders but I'm sure every sheepherder could be a cowboy.

Comment From Yolanda
Were you ever concerned that the purely observational style of the film would lead some viewers to false or premature conclusions about the rough handling of the sheep by the herders?

lucien castaing-taylor: Not really. The advantage of observational styles is that they let viewers come to their own conclusions, rather than being spoon-fed something by a journalist or producer.

lucien castaing-taylor: Anyone can draw conclusions, false or true. Many urban folks whose experience of non-human animals is just of pets or in zoos have little idea of human-animal interactions over the last 10,000 years.

Comment From Allison
Sweetgrass was my favorite film of 2010. I saw it at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. I remember wanting to run to the lobby to get a drink, but I didn't want to miss a single shot. It's a beautiful, fascinating film that succeeds without a single gimmick. Congratulations.

Comment From Guest
This question is in regard to the editing process. Sweetgrass’ in its ‘observational’ style seems to hinge on the long-take to help the viewer immerse themselves in the space of the film. How was your process of working with long takes, how do you decide when to cut and how do you navigate the viewer through a sequence of long takes while keeping them engaged?

lucien castaing-taylor: Long takes are very rare on television, and in most documentaries. They have probems, but also many advantages. They allow for an experience of time passing closer to that of real life, rather than the exaggerated experiences of cinema.

Ilisa Barbash: We tried to use a variety of pacing techniques, even though that might not be apparent. There are moments of extreme tension, when there is a lot happening on screen and then long moments of repose.

lucien castaing-taylor: And it's not as if when you're up in the mountains there's an exciting event every 2 minutes. To have pretended that would have resulted in a totally unfaithful representation of the sheepherder's experience.

Ilisa Barbash: We have been told that we hold each shot a little bit longer than another filmmaker might, but I think that's what gives the film its realistic feel.

Comment From fred
Hi, I've read a few interviews in which you discuss lived experience and phenomenology. Yet, so few US nonfiction films today employ long takes of lived experiences to explore their life world (I type this sentence as I write through virtual communication). My question: I find your film an absolutely fascinating extension of experience. Now, I can't watch documentaries anymore! Can the two of you make an equally fascinating film about watching painters (manual labor) paint a wall and then watching the paint dry? In other words, are certain types of lived experiences (and the life worlds) more cinematically compelling than others and, if so/not, why???

lucien castaing-taylor: But of course people raised on MTV and video games need constant stimuli to remain engrossed, and bore very easily.

Ilisa Barbash: Good question. I think that there are. We have wanted to make a film about writers but that's hard to do just visually. I would like to think that we could make an equally compelling film about paint drying but I am not sure we could. The sheep drive seems slow but in fact it's immensely dramatic.

lucien castaing-taylor: Some subjects seem more cinematic than others, because they're more visually spectacular or acoustically engrossing. But that's also a problem. For example, quite arbitrarily, being bored and being alone are two unbelievably facets of human experience, but how often do you see them represented in the movies (as opposed to novels, say)?

POV: Elaine here's another question for you:

Comment From Louise
Have you screened the film in Montana? What has the reaction been? Do residents feel like this is an accurate and faithful account of the sheepherder's life? I'm curious.

Elaine Allestad: Yes, most people think it's very accurate. Most people really like it. The closer you get to Big Timber and the small communities, they didn't enjoy the cursing. It seemed as you got further away and in cities they were amused by the cursing. If you haven't worked with livestock, you wouldn't know that you get pretty frustrated with them.

lucien castaing-taylor: At the same time I'd ask folks in Big Timber who mentioned the cursing (which is really just in one short scene) if they could see the short version (with no cursing) or the long version (with), in two cinemas side by side, which they'd go see, they all said they'd see the one with!

Ilisa Barbash: Of course the cursing the was bleeped out on TV.

lucien castaing-taylor: It's also one of the faults of documentary, which quickly becomes propaganda. Who doesn't lose their temper and fly off the handle from time to time? In fiction films, as in everyday life, people cuss from time to time. In doc, almost never. Which is paradoxical, and suggestions fiction is closer to reality than is documentary.

Ilisa Barbash: Cursing seems universal. We have shown the film in a number of countries and the words have been translated.I think that cursing can reveal a lot about a culture--especially the kids of words they choose

Ilisa Barbash: I mean the kinds of words they choose

lucien castaing-taylor: The film showed first in Missoula, and we were all nervous because it's such a different community, but it showed in a cinema of 1400 people, and fortunately seemed to go over well. In Big Timber it played for two weeks, in the local cinema, and of course many people went back again and again.

Comment From Elliot
I recall reading in an interview somewhere that you spent more money on sound equipment than video. Can you talk about the sound recording process and what kind of equipment you used?

Comment From Sharon
The film was so beautiful. Can you tell us what type of camera you used?

lucien castaing-taylor: We used a standard definition video camera that's totally out of date and low resolution by today's standards, even of $500 consumer cameras.

lucien castaing-taylor: Regarding sound, we worked with up to 8 high-powered 250 mw wireless radio mikes, so we could record sounds from people, dogs, horses and sheep from up to a mile and a half away.

Ilisa Barbash: As you can see we played with sound perspective. Sometime you hear things very clearly but the image seems as if you are far away--which you are. We played with this to give viewers a greater sense of intimacy with the people and their environment.

POV: We have a few more comments from our Facebook page:

POV: John Ruebartsch: I thought this was a beautiful and touching work. Especially I liked the portrayal of the tender, heart-felt relationship most of the herders had with the animals-sheep, dogs, and horses. Not bears though! Good job by the filmmakers.

POV: Liz Terrones: Wonderful doc! I felt like I was right there going through the grueling, emotional work of sheep ranching while observing the beauty of nature.

Ilisa Barbash: Dogs are the unsung heroes and heroines of the film. They function on all sorts of levels, as real helpmates, as physical extensions of the herders, and as their psychological mirrors. There are at least two kinds of dogs in the film. There are the herders—border collies. And guard dogs-Great Pyrennes and one Turkish Akbash.

lucien castaing-taylor: One of the things we tried to do was show how much hard work is involved. Most films of landscape or amazing natural areas give no sense of what it's like to actually inhabit or work in them. The pastoral as a genre tends towards the romantic and sentimental.

Ilisa Barbash: Guard dogs are raised with the sheep and are not treated like pets. They don't have names; in many ways, they’re almost feral. They live and sleep with the sheep, and will protect them as long as the sheep are alive and healthy. In fact, you may notice that they even allow the sheep to push them around a bit. They will fight to the death defending their flock against a bear.

Comment From Laurel Wyckoff
How much of a role does the amazing landscape play in shaping your story?

Ilisa Barbash: good question. I feel as if the landscape emerges as one of the main characters in the film.

Ilisa Barbash: You can see it transform over the course of the year of the life in the ranch-- and the browness of the grass signals the end of summer and the moment to go back down the mountains.

lucien castaing-taylor: Some viewers respond to the landscape, others to the sheep, others to the people. It means different things to different people. For me, the landscape is everywhere, but not in a distanced way, as something very present -- vast, super-human, predating us and outdating us, reminding us of our mortality and humility in front of it, but also coloring our every experience. Landscape and cityscape are surely crucial determinants of human experience.

POV: Welcome to all the late additions to the live chat. We're talking with the filmmakers of Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and Elaine Allestad from the Allestad Ranch. Keep adding your questions and comments and we'll get to as many as we can!

POV: Joebonadonna left a question on our chat page: Is the ranch still up and running?

Elaine Allestad: After we quit going to the mountains, we changed our whole operation. We sold our ranch in Big Timber. We bought a ranch that borders Canada now. We had to reduce our sheep because we had a whole different grass scenario. We first tried putting them out on shares, which did not work at all. We got most of them back. A young couple we know wanted to go into the sheep business, so they bought about 500 of our sheep. We kept about 200 of our sheep because every ranch could use a small bunch of sheep. We are raising cattle on our ranch up north now. About 600 cattle up there.

Elaine Allestad: We 7x our acres and 10x our grazing capacity with the new ranch.

Comment From Patty
Sweetgrass walks the blurry line between independent documentary and ethnographic film. Do you see this film as an intervention in ethnographic filmmaking? Can aestheticized observational films be used to explore anthropological concerns?

lucien castaing-taylor: Sure, but it doesn't mean that anthropologists will realise that, because they like everything to be in written language. Meaning is linguified. But human experience is not that.

lucien castaing-taylor: Plus "aesthetics" we think of as some rarified domain, but in fact the word just means "sensory experience." What is more central to human culture than that?

Ilisa Barbash: I don't know, I think anthropologists are interested in lived experience and why not sheep herding?

Comment From fred
Here's a tough one. Where is the 'sensory' in your film? How do you personally find it when filming over the course of time?

lucien castaing-taylor: All our consciousness and experience is sensory. It gets snuffed out in academic books, but rarely in cinema. The challenge is not to find the sensory but to modulate it, in a way that works within a film.

POV: Another comment from Facebook:

POV: Ted Marcus: I thought it was very daring to make a documentary without narration. The result had the potential to make it as interesting as watching someone's wedding video. But, the filmmakers ALL did an amazing job telling the story. And, I ended up hating and then liking and respecting the main characters. I think had there been narration a lot would have been lost in the movie's impact and telling of the story.

Ilisa Barbash: That's great. Thank you. We decided from the get-go not to use narration

Ilisa Barbash: We did not want to tell people how and what to think. We have too much respect for viewers

lucien castaing-taylor: Narration is a way to control and disempower the viewer, to tell them what YOU the filmmaker want him/her to think and know and feel. Fiction films don't usually have an omniscient narrator or on-screen commentator. No reason why documentaries have to use narration as such a crutch either.

lucien castaing-taylor: And none of us go through life with some narrator's voice in our ear telling us how we are to understand everything.

Ilisa Barbash: We wanted people to sit back and watch the film for themselves and have their minds changed again and again, as your was as they watch the film

Comment From Ron Jones
How did this film start? Where did you find your subjects? and do you have a personal relationship to this community?

Ilisa Barbash: I would love to hear Elaine tell this. Laurence apparently was talking to a guy he rented land from and said that he was the last person in the county making the sheep drive and that someone ought to make a film about it.

Ilisa Barbash: This guy told a friend, who told someone else who told us. And we thought it would make a great film topic. Anthropologists are supposedly always looking for the last of a tradition and here was the last of a tradition in our own backyard--int he US.

Elaine Allestad: i would like Lucien to tell the story of the first night he came to our house and he slept in sheep leggings. Lawrence was speaking to a guy who bought a place in Big Timber and we were grazing with our sheep, and that's when he made the comment.

Elaine Allestad: He was a newspaper owner I believe.

Elaine Allestad: not leggings, *wagon

Elaine Allestad: He called and we said sure! You can meet us and decide if this is what you want to do. I think he stayed a few nights in the sheep wagon. I guess he decided we were characters that were worth filming.

Elaine Allestad: Lucien that is

lucien castaing-taylor: I went up there during lambing in 2001. I called and got Lawrence who couldn't understand a word of my British accent. He said, "Here, speak to Elaine, she speaks English." So Elaine told me how to find them.

lucien castaing-taylor: After spending that summer with them up in the mountains, I had totally fallen in love with the place, and wanted us all to move there, but there was no job. So I just had to keep going back and forth from Colorado whenever possible. After three years of filming, the Allestads became like family to me.

Elaine Allestad: We very much enjoyed Lucien and Lisa and their kids. And we feel like they are part of our family now.

POV: We only have a few more minutes left with the filmmakers of Sweetgrass and Elaine Allestad, so this is your last chance to ask a question or leave a comment!

lucien castaing-taylor: Plus Pat and I are about the same age, and had a daughter the same age, and we had a lot of fun up in the mountains together.

Comment From James
Elaine- what do your friends think of the film?

Elaine Allestad: Most of my friends were anxious to see it and very proud of Sweet Grass County. Our county was very proud to have a film about residents. I think the only negative comment was the cursing, as I said before. But otherwise, it's been shown at our local theater, and they plan on showing it again this summer. The DVDs are for sale at a local store, and she has sold numerous copies! She keeps reordering them.

Ilisa Barbash: I have a question for Elaine. Do you see this as a home movie or as a real--in the theater-kind of film?

lucien castaing-taylor: Plus Lawrence wanted more information for outsiders than the film provides.

Elaine Allestad: I think it's both. I think it's very good for home entertainment because it brings our agriculture into homes. I've heard from people that they enjoy it in the movie theater. I know that everyone enjoys the DVD as well. I definitely think it's both.

POV: Here's our last question, another one for Elaine.

Comment From Kurt
Do you know how large that herd was? I was wondering that throughout the show..

Elaine Allestad: About 3000 total between ewes and lambs

Ilisa Barbash: And dogs?

lucien castaing-taylor: The permit was for 1200 ewes, and they average about 1 1/2 live births per ewe. Plus there were more sheep that stayed on the Yellowstone and didnt go into the mountains.

Elaine Allestad: When we were trailing in, there were 5 dogs. After we left, there were 3 dogs. And 6 guard dogs

POV: We're going to have to leave it there.

POV: Thanks to everyone for joining our live chat. Thank you Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor for joining us and sharing your experiences from this amazing film.

Ilisa Barbash: Thanks for your great comments. We can answer more questions on Facebook.

lucien castaing-taylor: Thanks a lot. And thanks for Elaine for taking a break in her pick-up from weeding. Amazing what can be done in this virtual world.

Ilisa Barbash:

lucien castaing-taylor: Of course when there were more sheep, there were fewer weeds. They would eat all the spurge and knapweed.

POV: And thank you Elaine Allestad for joining us from Montana!

Elaine Allestad: Thank you for the interview! We will be interested to look at the questions on facebook

Elaine Allestad: Goodbye

lucien castaing-taylor: Bye! xoxo

POV: If we didn't get a chance to ask your question or post your comment, the conversation continues at POV's companion site for Sweetgrass at

POV: You can also rewatch the film for a limited time online and on the PBS mobile app or enter to win movie posters or DVDs!

POV: Next week's chat will be with the filmmakers of Enemies of the People, which will be broadcast next week. You can sign up for a chat reminder here:

POV: Bye!

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Sweetgrass... is a tribute to past and contemporary people who still manage to eke out a bittersweet living on the land.”

— Ilisa Barbash, Producer

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