This article originally appeared in The Big Timber Pioneer newspaper on May 6, 2010. It appears here with the permission of the publisher.
Living the Story
Sweetgrass exposed filmmaker to rigors of herders’ lifestyle
By Patrick Cross, Big Timber Pioneer staff writer
Workdays in the mountains were long for Lucien Castaing-Taylor, beginning well before dawn and lasting nearly until the next dawn.
The mountains were far from family, too, far enough that he couldn’t go home when the work day was through.
Climbing around boulders, up and down hills, working with domestic sheep that become half wild over several months grazing in the high country was tough enough. Add to this the dangers, the storms and lightning, the predators.
It was quiet, with few to talk to and fewer still who talk back, though there was plenty of time for telling stories with those sharing the labors and experience.
Often the only voices were the grumbles and bleats of the sheep, the barking dogs, a whinny and snort from a horse or maybe a wild song from a bull elk or a coyote. And always that of the wind.
The pay wasn’t much, but the benefits of working in the Absaroka Mountains, often alone, bound less by the schedules of society and more those of nature provided its own compensation.
Castaing-Taylor, however, wasn’t working as a sheepherder over those three summers in the wilderness south of Big Timber. He was filming the documentary Sweetgrass, which was shown at the Martin Theatre.
“It’s not that easy to go in and out, its such a long way,” Castaing-Taylor said of the mountains when he was in town for the premiere. “Plus, the first year I was a greenhorn. I was clueless in the mountains.”
After first hearing about the herders and their sheep who travel over 150 miles to and from grazing allotments in the mountains, Castaing-Taylor didn’t know what he would find when he came to investigate the possible documentary subject. And the Absarokas are a long way from his native United Kingdom and urban Colorado where he was working.
“Greenhorn” and “stupidly” are words he used often when describing his first adventures in the mountains, like with his first bear encounter.
“The first grizzly I saw charged me,” he said.
As Pat Connolly, one of the herders featured in the film, told it, Castaing-Taylor had been loaned a .357 magnum revolver.
“It was useless,” Castaing-Taylor grumbled. They heard gun shots, Connolly continued, and then on the radio one of the other herders reported seeing the bear running away. Then Castaing-Taylor came bursting through the bush, and “his eyes were this big,” Connolly laughed with eyes showing no lids, “his nostrils were flarin’, and he was packin’ this pistol around.”
“It’s a good thing I’m such a bad shot and didn’t hit the thing in six shots,” Castaing-Taylor concluded.
But over the coming summers, he would gain more experience in the backcountry and a real love for the Absarokas. With his family living in Big Timber over that time and sharing some of the experience – his kids, age 3 and 5 at the time, even helped with trailing the sheep up the Boulder Road to Box Canyon – they felt at home here, too.
“The Allestads,” who hold the grazing permit, “are like a second family to me,” he said. He would also get an idea of how the film was going to be made.
The movie has no script, no narrator, and no director. According to the credits, Castaing-Taylor recorded, not directed, the film. This isn’t just because sheep do not take direction well – just ask the herders about that – it is also because Castaing-Taylor wants the audience to be more involved when viewing the film.
In conventional documentaries, a narrator “talks down to the audience” by explaining everything, he said, and the film simply reinforces what the narrator said. The people in those films, even if they are the real people and not actors, usually just tell their stories. The films don’t show the people living those stories.
In Sweetgrass, Castaing-Taylor wanted the “pictures to stand for themselves and the audience to interpret it for themselves,” even though some viewers were frustrated by the lack of explanation — some couldn’t even figure out why one would bother taking sheep into the mountains to begin with.
To do this, he recorded the sights and sounds of everyday life in the mountains as experienced by participants in that lifestyle, similar to the concepts he currently teaches students at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.
“We spent more money on the sound than on the cameras,” he said of Sweetgrass, explaining that microphones and wireless transmitters with a half-mile range could be attached to subjects.
“Occasionally, I would put a (mic) on a horse or a dog or a sheep, but they often broke them, and they are expensive,” Castaing-Taylor said. “But people broke them occasionally, too.”
All this electronic equipment ran on batteries, which were charged with solar panels packed into the wilderness on a mule with hopes that it would be sunny.
And while there is a division of labor between those trailing the sheep into the high country or watching them once they are there, Castaing-Taylor was all over the place filming it all.
“I wanted to be everywhere,” he said. “I wanted to be with the sheep, with the packstring, with the camp. Everything had the potential to be interesting.”
He also spent a lot of time by himself sweeping his camera across the rolling, rocky landscape under the big sky’s biggest clouds.
Running all over the mountains like this, often with a heavy camera mounted on a pole craning over his head and suspended by a shoulder harness “so I could occasionally put my hands down and get some blood back into my hands,” took its toll on Castaing-Taylor. Later, he needed surgery on both feet and now has to wear special orthopedic shoes.
But the 200 hours of film he recorded has been “whittled down to two hours,” by him and his wife, Ilisa Barbash, into a movie that has been well received at film festivals internationally.
Yet it was rejected by “dozens of film festivals” until being accepted at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. After its positive reception there, others took interest.
Since then, it has been translated into five languages – French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, and German.
At the highly selective New York Film Festival, it was considered one of the best films of the year, “an incredible honor,” Castaing-Taylor said.
And The New York Times’ number one film critic, Manohla Dargis, who “makes Hollywood studio bosses quake in their shoes,” according to Castaing-Taylor, not only reviewed the film but liked it.
Even urban audiences enjoyed the film, he said, and empathized with the herders’ stress. But in some of the international showings, other herders came to see their American counterparts.
In the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, the film was shown in a country church after Mass. Spanish herders from the Pyrenees Mountains appreciated how the Americans took good care of their animals too, and the Germans who came to the Berlin Film Festival were amazed that the American herders “cuss like we do,” Castaing-Taylor laughed.
For a film with very little dialogue, much of it is cussing, with some phrases proving difficult for some of the translators writing the foreign-language subtitles.
One scene, in which herder Connolly lays into the sheep after they have climbed over a ridge and dropped into another basin, has been described as “the best cussing scene in the history of movies,” according to Castaing-Taylor. It is followed by a scene where Connolly makes an emotional phone call to his mother when the big man appears “tender, weak, vulnerable,” Castaing-Taylor said.
Though another cleaner version of the film was made to show at Boulder church camps, he said, the shorter version “loses something.”
“There’s a certain potency that keeps you on the edge of your seat during those scenes,” he said.
That ticked-off herder, Connolly, was pleased with how the film came out, though he hopes viewers don’t take the offensive language the wrong way.
“At first, you wanna hide since its embarrassing,” he said with an easy grin. “But then people come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I do this too once a week.’ It’s life.”
There is a lot of responsibility watching over someone’s sheep and horses, “you’re left with a man’s life savings,” Connolly explained, and the sheep can “get away in an afternoon and it will take you a couple days to get them back where they belong. It’s a tough job.”
During the cussing scene — the one with the most cussing, that is — Connolly explained that he had been pushing the “soured out” sheep too hard and they just “quit me.”
“They’re gonna stand there and say, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ and I’m standin’ there beating myself in the head,” he said.
The grizzlies come every few hours almost every night and sometimes even in the middle of the day, Connolly said — bears that would have been secretive if it wasn’t for the easy prey.
“I don’t know if it’s religious,” as Castaing-Taylor put it, “but sheepherders feel this almost biblical charge to protect their sheep.”
And on top of this, Connolly was a single dad worrying about a 6-year-old daughter.
“Plus, he had to tolerate me asking questions and being in the way,” Castaing-Taylor added.
But not all of the film’s viewers were empathetic, and some posted online criticisms of Connolly. While they do not bother him much, his daughter, Clancy, now 16, takes the criticism more “to heart.”
In January, she wrote a letter to The New York Times, pointing out the challenges her dad faced, saying that he was “not being a baby” during the phone call scene, and that his life was “no vacation in the mountains.”
“She sticks up for her dad,” Connolly said. Castaing-Taylor said the letter made him cry.
Connolly also pointed out that he wasn’t the only person working with the sheep who was caught swearing on film, “I’m just the one that got picked and got shown doing it.”
Another complete film could be made with the cut footage, Castaing-Taylor said, and though he said he did his best, he called Sweetgrass “fragmentary, flawed and limited.”
“It’s never adequate to represent real life,” he said, adding that he was humbled by the task. “You can never do the world as much justice as it deserves.”
But Connolly praised the film, saying “you couldn’t change it. It’s as authentic as you can do.”