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Sweetgrass and the Future of Nonfiction Cinema

An essay by film critic Robert Koehler

Sheep travel to summer pasture in the documentary Sweetgrass

Sheep travel to summer pasture in the documentary Sweetgrass.

Two myths about cinema have been so widely promulgated that, like so many myths before them, they have become commonly accepted as truth.

The first is that we are on the precipice of the death of cinema, if not falling over the cliff and about to go splat. Although it’s been a decade and more since a spate of essays, articles and pronouncements from as disparate a field as Jean-Luc Godard to David Thomsen stated in no uncertain terms that the art form as it’s existed for a century is expiring of any number of causes, from an exhaustion of the imagination to business cycles in the exhibition industry to a post-celluloid technological revolution, the sentiment has retained the dogged consistency and belief of that of ufologists and supporters of Bigfoot.

Never mind that there was no genuinely philosophical or theoretical underpinning to the death-of-cinema claims (though such has been their power that even the likes of Susan Sontag were pulled into these intellectual doldrums); they were easily refuted by the best evidence possible: The new cinema emerging right around the beginning of the new century, just as certain palpable resignation could be felt from those disheartened by the rise of digital filmmaking and the noticeable reduction in film-as-film.

Stills from Lisandro Alonso's La libertad and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century

Stills from Lisandro Alonso's La libertad and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century

Did the death cult happen to notice, for example, Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad when it appeared in 2001, demonstrably the seminal film of the decade to follow, and a work made not only by a young, unknown director, but one devoted to 35mm and the thinking of Andre Bazin? Did they notice the irony of this convergence of factors? Could even devout Bazinians have predicted as recently as the late 1990s that Bazin would re-emerge as the most important theoretical mind for a new generation of filmmakers around the world? Would it have been conceivable that the decade could yield the most exciting re-examination of cinematic possibilities since at least the 1960s, one that would result in a slate of films, from Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century which would blast away at old precepts of what a film was, what fiction and nonfiction actually were and where the boundaries lay, and send viewers into a realm of fresh approaches to cinema grammar that simultaneously acknowledged the classical masters from Ford to Ozu?

"A Grand Renaissance of Documentaries"

Which leads to the second, somewhat contradictory myth: that, even though we may be witnessing the death of cinema, we are surely in the midst of a grand renaissance of documentaries. Ah, the old D-word. This sentiment has been particularly intense and centered in the U.S., where documentaries such as Michael Moore’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me ventured where few documentaries outside of those by Jacques Cousteau had gone before: to American suburban multiplexes, land of the mainstream.

It wasn’t that they snared awards, including the Oscar; it was that general moviegoers were paying to see something that they might ostensibly have watched previously on television. It was a myth additionally promulgated by a cadre of media entities with skin in the game, indebted to the notion that especially the topical, issue-oriented, hot-button documentary was where the action was; namely, the Sundance film festival, HBO’s documentary division, PBS and ITVS, the latter three being primary suppliers of product to the former, which has long been the key launch pad for American independent film and particularly documentary film. (Or, as the adage goes — and this is most definitely not a myth — everyone knows that when you go to Sundance, see the documentaries first.)

While this network of interests has undoubtedly created a business climate for documentary filmmakers, who are nothing if not prolific, that is not to say that they have produced a renaissance. In a public conversation at the 2005 Toronto film festival which I had with Albert Maysles, one of the living masters of the nonfiction film and a rigorous proponent of “direct cinema,” he pointedly expressed his distress over the myriad techniques which supposed documentarians were using to create “dramatic” effects in a clear attempt to mimic “movies,” to say nothing of the promulgation of mistruths, including how Michael Moore had actually spoken multiple times with GM CEO Roger Smith in the course of making Roger & Me a film hinging on the notion that Moore could never actually speak directly with Smith, a point further detailed in the Canadian-made deconstruction of Moore’s brand of documentary, Manufacturing Dissent.

Stills from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me

Stills from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me

Maysles was not sounding the crank, the crusty veteran railing against the young whippersnappers. Rather, he was pointing to the corrupting influence of television and theatrical modes on his chosen art form, most notably in the ways in which American documentary was still largely tethered to the old “educational” methods of schoolroom “audio-visual” pedagogy.

The “renaissance” has been, in actuality, something of a disaster for the American school of documentary. The work that emerges from the Sundance world, so to speak, is fundamentally instructional in purpose, tone and method, fully derived from the educational uses of films from grade school through college.

The content, whether it’s environmental degradation or the fast-food industry’s hold on our bellies, is driven by a sense of entertaining journalism. This must always include the foregrounding of central “characters” with rooting interests (preferably three of varying shapes, sizes and tendencies). The form must always incorporate cross-cutting or various effects-laden decoration, buttressed by a music score founded on the principle of indicating which direction the audience’s emotions must turn — in essence, the art and science of the Hollywood movie composer’s craft. The structural imperative behind it all is a three-act narrative — all of Moore’s films, to cite only one example, are grounded in this — which expressly borrows from Hollywood. The resulting feedback loop is self-reinforcing: The closer that a “documentary” adheres to these principles, the better its chances of being accepted by the mainstream as a “movie,” since it becomes indistinguishable from one. The logical end point of this is a documentary becoming a Hollywood product, and unrecognizable to the direct cinema voices like Maysles, whose careers have been founded on the principle of resisting Hollywood’s hegemony over American cinema.

The irony of this myth is that there really has been a renaissance, only elsewhere in the world, where the prerogatives of nonfiction follow entirely different modes from those of Moore and company. Attendees of FID Marseilles, artistic director Jean-Pierre Rehm’s annual festival of independent non-fiction, know this, as well as those who pay attention to nonfiction at festivals like Rotterdam, Belfort, Era New Horizons, Jeonju and BAFICI (to name a few) know that they will see precious few films instructing them on how to think or how to feel about the subject at hand. These films, loosely termed “observational” or “objectivist” (even “materialist”), represent the ideological and formal opposite of the Sundance world. They are realized with the notion, expressed in Bazin and others, of comprehension through the act of seeing and listening, a possible fathoming of reality through non-intrusive means, a liberation of the viewer from intentionality.

What compounds the irony of our current situation is that just as a certain materiality, even scientific thought (as much as is possible in a work of cinema) guides this kind of work I prefer to term nonfiction rather than the musty documentary, the most thrilling tendency of the past decade has been toward the “in-between” film, where notions of narrative and reality dissolve and fold into each other, smudging the boundaries. Bazin’s admittedly romantic and profoundly Catholic-based idea of a reality made through plan-sequence, depth of field, long shots, and then radically advanced by (atheist) Antonioni through a cinema of the duration of the shot has now been taken several steps further by Apichatpong, Costa, Alonso, Sharon Lockhart, Lav Diaz, Uruphong Raksasad and Kelly Reichardt (again, naming only a few), whose films tend to dissolve fiction and nonfiction, with nonfiction driving the vehicle rather than the American commercial documentary being driven by the Hollywood bus.

Sweetgrass

This context, I think, is where it’s best to understand the key importance of Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Ilisa Barbash’s masterpiece of nonfiction, Sweetgrass. Another layer should be added to this context. The anthropological cinema of Jean Rouch, as well as the pure fieldwork film used in the growing genre of anthropological filmmaking, has a way of joining up with Bazinian notions initially formed around narrative, and especially that other Jean R., Renoir. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ cultural anthropology, Marxist and firmly anti-colonialist, was in many ways made visible by Rouch’s work, particularly that made in Africa.

The central idea, made manifest in Sweetgrass to an extent that’s rarely been equaled, is that the subject is recorded and observed almost purely through image and sound (and a minimum if not absence of supporting text), but with considerable research and understanding of the cultural and political realities informing and affecting that subject. In spite of the continual feuding that embroils much of academic anthropology regarding the scientific virtues of field recording and its contribution to analytical interpretation — a battlefield that amuses Castaing-Taylor and Barbash no end — the cinematic value of the work is undoubted, and its possibly unintended connections to an Antonioni-to-Alonso cinema are endlessly fascinating. (As Castaing-Taylor noted to critic Jay Kuehner in his extensive interview in Cinema Scope magazine, “the virtues of the long take crept up on us and changed the way Sweetgrass was edited.")

Sheep make their way to summer pasture in the documentary Sweetgrass

Sheep make their way to summer pasture in Sweetgrass.

For the makers of Sweetgrass — or, specifically, Castaing-Taylor, who did the camerawork on the footage that found its way into the final film — call themselves “recordists,” not “directors.” Semantics? No. The intent of the word is precisely meant, and points to the film’s essence. Castaing-Taylor, on camera, and Barbash, at the editing table, are practicing their anthropological discipline through cinema as removed observers of the subject at hand: A family-run sheepherding operation based in Big Timber, Sweet Grass County, Montana, using leased public lands to run sheep into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains until 2003.

Barbash is a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, while Castaing-Taylor is a professor of Visual and Environmental Studies and Anthropology at Harvard, where he heads the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. They have collaborated on the previous nonfiction films, Made in USA (about Los Angeles sweatshops) and In and Out of Africa (on the international market in African art), and co-authored the 2008 book, The Cinema of Robert Gardner, as well as texts on transcultural cinema. But their adventure that led to the making of Sweetgrass started far from their current Harvard home and the academic grove; indeed, their subject’s sheer remoteness from civilization while being firmly American gives the film its extraordinary qualities of timelessness and rigorous attention to the here and now.

Teaching at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the early 2000s, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor were fascinated by Boulder’s contrasting subcultures on the left (New Age-ism) and right (Soldier of Fortune), and how they shared a common obsession with the self and varying shades of libertarianism. A planned film on the subject lurched to and fro; meanwhile, word came from a New York friend acquainted with a landowner in Big Timber that the Allestads, a Norwegian American sheepherding family leasing land from the owner, were on the verge of closing down their sheep runs. Intrigued though acutely aware of the clichés burdening anthropology trained on the “last-of-its-kind” syndrome, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash decided that he would dash up to Big Timber with a small consumer video camera in 2001. What he first witnessed was the lambing season in spring, and then later, something out of the 19th century: Sheepherders who were, to all outside appearances, working and living no differently from cowboys of the old West, with the added tools of the walkie-talkie, satellite cell phone and high-powered binoculars.

The recordists came up to Big Timber with their young children the following summers of 2001, 2002, and 2003, with the hopes of taking everyone on the sheep run while also recording local debates stirring between anti-development activists and pro-ranching interests (these latter elements were to be shot by Barbash). While the considerable danger posed by grizzlies, wolves and other natural predators of sheep made it impossible for the family to venture together, Castaing-Taylor went alone for the twelve-week, 150-mile round trip run with herders John Ahern, a wizened if kindly oldster who fought in Vietnam, and younger and vividly foul-mouthed Pat Connolly, who, unstated in the film, is John’s cousin.

Ingeniously, Castaing-Taylor positioned his digital camera on an apparatus that kept the weight on his hips and freed his hands as much as possible. (He’s observed in an interview with writer Peter Orner in The Believer that “the camera became a kind of prosthetic extension of myself.”) A sort of poor man’s Steadicam, this camera tool, plus Castaing-Taylor’s bravery and physical dexterity, to say nothing of an immense reservoir of patience, were key ingredients in making the intensively attentive filmmaking that characterizes every scene and sequence of Sweetgrass.

The clear obsession for sensory detail extended to a remarkable strategy with synch sound recording: Several lav mics, capable of transmitting from two miles from the camera’s position, were placed on subjects, even individual sheep. There was a cost for this intensity: Castaing-Taylor did such damage to his legs and feet that he was diagnosed with traumatic arthritis and required two foot surgeries. Undeterred, he returned for recordings in the winter and spring periods to cover lambing, docking, and wool shearing. (These are placed in the film in the early sections, as preludes to the sheep run.)

What followed was perhaps more typical of most nonfiction films, a years-long editing process which saw the filmtake various shapes, including the previously noted emergence of interest with the take of long duration (powerfully and hypnotically on view in “Hell Roaring Creek,” one of Castaing-Taylor’s several shorts and installation works made as part of a larger project alongside Sweetgrass, and which recently premiered at the 2010 Locarno film festival).

Sweetgrass as Symphony

The final form of Sweetgrass is informed, perhaps subconsciously, by the symphony. This is worthy of noting in a film that, like so much of the best nonfiction of recent years, is shorn of music (save snippets of John’s cowboy tunes he hums to himself on the trail). Four movements — and the word movement is a powerful visual correlative here — are detectable.

The first presents the family farm itself, the sheep massed for feeding in the barren winter months, sheared of their wool, and nursed by members of the Allestads and hired hands during lambing. Indeed, the extreme exteriors followed by unexpectedly claustrophobic conditions in the barns establish contrasting twin themes within the movement. An interlude with the humans, particularly the ranchers cracking jokes about dumb “cowboys,” and a freeform and relaxed scene with the family, bridges the movements.

The second movement thrusts the viewer into the early stage of the sheep run into the Absaroka foothills, where John and Pat are accompanied by some of their young nieces and nephews. With an expressed shift in tempo and pulse, this section views the run as an act in controlled chaos, the sheep climbing the increasingly difficult terrain, the camera vying with the animals for a place to establish itself, the sense of gravity growing unstable. The violence is fascinating, tough, mad — herding recorded as football. (The thought of Castaing-Taylor’s camera in the midst of an NFL game is almost too good for words.)

Sheep herder John Ahern looking out over a mountain in the documentary Sweetgrass

Sheep herder John Ahern, as seen in Sweetgrass.

Movement three, like some of Beethoven’s later symphonies, breaks into sub-sections, from the routines of the herders setting up camp and existing amidst the herd; pitched battles with predators (grizzlies are the big menace on this trip, and the camera shows the awful results of one attack); painful communications back home with loved ones (Pat’s phone call atop a peak to his mother has already become the stuff of legend); and the descent from the grazing zone in the high mountains.

Which then dissolves invisibly into the fourth and final movement, a subtly elegiac piece in which the “playing time” finishes surprisingly not on sheep but on John, uncertain of his immediate or long-term future, and then extends to the remarkable closing credits, succinctly informing the viewer against a mountain landscape utterly absent of the bleating of sheep that “since the late 19th century, western ranchers and their hired hands have ranged animals on public lands for summer pasture.

In 2003, over three months and 150 miles, the last band of sheep trolled through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains.” An era ended, a symphony concludes.

And perhaps no symphony is to be likened more to Sweetgrass than Beethoven’s Sixth, which similarly extends the standard four movements into sub-movements, and tells the story of a pleasurable sojourn in the countryside interrupted by the arrival of a raging storm, until the sun reappears and bucolic nature re-emerges. The Pastorale, as it’s known, is what the film doesn’t call itself.

But Castaing-Taylor and Barbash have pointedly referenced the tradition of the pastoral regarding Sweetgrass, a fact curiously ignored in the nearly universally positive reviews the film has received. Beethoven, the first modernist who slipped from the classical to the initial vestiges of romanticism, expressed the pastoral with direct, unmediated pleasure. In between Beethoven and Sweetgrass is Jean-François Millet, who took the pastoral and brought into full view the realities of the working poor in the fields, envisioning a depth of physical labor that painting had never before achieved. Sweetgrass heightens this labor to an extreme of palpable exhaustion, in which image and sound bond for an encompassing sensory reality.

Sheep cross a stream in the documentary Sweetgrass

Sheep cross a stream in the documentary Sweetgrass.

Listen to the film, and alongside the drone and cries of the sheep is another kind of sound that forms its own beat and even music: The hard, heavy breathing of the hired hands, managing a herd in impossibly steep and high-elevation conditions. Post-Millet, the pastoral could no longer prettify the life of the countryside, and with the development of photography and photorealism, the sense of beauty in even the seemingly blissful heights of a southern Montana mountain landscape is undercut, mitigated, even at points cancelled out by other factors: Tired feet, worn legs, ornery, nasty creatures, dirt, dust, mud, blood, bears, rocks, you name it.

"Recording" Sweetgrass

But the beauty can nevertheless almost overwhelm the eye during many passages in the film’s movements, and it’s directly tied into the process of recording. Recording isn’t meant in this sense as a mechanically minded placement of camera and sound equipment, and a switching of the machines to the “on” and “off” positions. Rather, it imposes a distanced perspective and discipline on the filmmaking, married to a consciousness of the observer and a deliberation to bring the viewer in line with what the recorder sees and hears.

There’s an extraordinary moment in Sweetgrass when the camera gradually zooms from an ultra long-shot of a mountain ridge to a detail of that ridge, revealing at first a vague movement, then what looks like a river cascading down the ride’s steep slope, then the initial details of a sheep herd and then to the individual sheep, moving along the slope in a steady unending flow. The motion of the animals is indeed “recorded,” and the geographic context in which they’re moving is fully captured; the mechanics of the zoom even suggests the impersonal nature of the surveillance camera targeting a subject of interest (and, in this case, the further suggestion of a hunter eyeing its prey). But the shot, like so many in Sweetgrass, is transformed by selection through recording: The beginning fascination with the spectacularly craggy, sculptural topography, shifts invisibly to a deliberate focus on the pure strangeness of a sheep herd’s resemblance to other natural patterns, from avalanches and the sliding sands on a dune to the steady train of ants on the move. A beauty consumes the screen; the scientifically observed morphs into art.

This morphing occurs as well in the film’s fascination with anachronism. Only when the herders are seen pulling out their walkie-talkies or cell phones is the viewer jolted back into our time — the film had already established such anachronisms, the best being an unforgettable wide shot of a sheep band marching down the middle of a small town’s deserted main street, but the action is still a shock. The recording keeps rolling, and with Pat’s call to his mother, a further shock: The cowboy image of imperturbability is shattered as he describes, on the verge of tears, why the life he knows is falling apart. “It’s miserable up here. This is b------ mom. I’m runnin’ my guts out. My dog’s so sore-footed he can’t walk! My knee’s so screwed up! My knee’s hurtin’. My dog won’t even leave camp! I can’t even get him to go with me…It’s so goddamn rough that you kill a horse — I mean my horse is ribs and bones. Yeah. I’m just ridin’ the s--- out of him…Whenever I walk, it pops. Just like breakin’ a branch. It don’t hurt, it just grinds. But it’s going to hurt if I keep this s--- up…I’d rather enjoy these mountains rather than hate them, and it’s getting to that point: I’m just hatin’ it.”

Categorizing Sweetgrass

Look on the web and find that Sweetgrass has already been categorized. It makes for funny reading: At one website, the labels read thusly: “landscape, realism, video art, installation, digital, sheep, farming, anthropology, film.” The words absurdly smack up against each other, a crash of labels. Yet this list does begin to describe some of the content of Sweetgrass, and speaks to the impossibility of slotting it.

“The sheep movie,” as it was known first in the 2009 Berlinale Forum. That’s the best that can be done for it in that regard, but not in regard to the film’s political dimensions. For in Sweetgrass, the guiding force behind these representations of working on the surface of the earth is an overwhelming sadness at the process of collapse and the end of things, alongside the unspoken drama of human beings stuck in a cycle with no escape. The politics is therefore immensely angry, and more forceful due to the recordists’ refusal to announce their anger in literal means. Instead, it seeps out, like water trickling from rocks to form a creek, and the moral burden of the political ideas is borne purely by the cinema acts of watching and listening.

Portions of this essay first appeared in different form in Cinema Scope magazine (Fall 2009, Issue 40) in the essay “Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias: The New Nonfiction.”

This essay was published with the permission of Robert Koehler.





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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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