POV: What is ‘Sweetgrass’ about?
Ilisa Barbash: Sweetgrass is about many things — nature, people’s relationship to land and animals, the American West, dying traditions, hard work, challenges, failure.
POV: How did you first learn about this drive and why did you decide to make a film about it?
Barbash: When we were living in the American West and working as professors at the University of Colorado, we heard that Lawrence Allestad was the last rancher in Sweet Grass County to be bringing sheep up into the mountains. His family had been doing this for about four generations and he said to a friend of his in an aside, ‘I’m the last guy in the county to be doing this. Someone ought to make a film about me.’
POV: So how did you manage to gain the trust of this family?
Barbash: One of the reasons it was initially easy to come into the community was the pride that the family had in being the last people in the area to hold out against all odds, against economic problems, against dealing with the difficulty of the sheep drive.
POV: When did it become necessary for Lucien to pack up everything, and carry it by himself along with the ranchers and sheep through the mountains?
Lucien Castaing-Taylor: When we first went up there we thought that the two of us and our two kids would stay together throughout the whole of the filming. We ended up splitting into two crews once we realized how remote the mountains were and also how prevalent predators were, especially grizzly bears. Since 1975, grizzly bears have been on the endangered species list and you’re not allowed to defend your own flock against an attack. The idea during filming was to be a fly on the wall, cinéma vérité. We had two tiny kids, so when we realized how many grizzly bears were up there, it seemed like it would be too intrusive for all of us to be together in the mountains. From the end of the mining trail at Independence, Lisa went back down to the ranch and carried on filming in Sweet Grass County while I went up into the mountains for the rest of the summer with the sheep drive.
POV: How did this family get to be the holders of the last permit to do this drive across the mountains?
Castaing-Taylor: At the end of the 19th Century when railroad companies would lure folks from the East Coast, and Scandinavians and northern Europeans out from Europe with promises of infinite fertility, amazing sun, rain and this green grass, everyone would stake up their claim and have a good year, or two or three. Then, they would have a drought for one year, two years, three years, four years and everyone would be belly up. So the history of homesteading went hand in hand with the history of needing to supplement deeded land with grazing on public land. These grazing permits have been part of almost a century and a half now of moving to the West. But, they’ve dwindled for two reasons. It’s hard to be in agriculture. Agriculture has been taken over by corporate agribusiness and to be a family ranch is difficult. Additionally, the market has largely bottomed out. Americans don’t eat lamb anymore. We eat on average less than a pound of lamb per capita a year. That’s nothing. We don’t wear wool anymore. The cost of shearing sheep is less than any revenue made from selling the wool. Furthermore, there’s a lot of environmentalist pressure to remove ranchers from wilderness areas where there have been grazing permits allowed for generations.
POV: So the ranch is in Big Timber, Montana. Tell us about the community there and how you and Lucien gained their trust.
Barbash: The ranch was, it is no longer, a little bit outside of Big Timber. It’s a tiny town. There’s one high school and everybody knows each other. The county itself has about 2,500 people. When the sheep drive starts, the main street is essentially shut off. The police help make sure that cars and trucks are not going on to the street. As the trail of sheep progresses through the town and up the road, everybody helps out — from the people who run the butcher store, to the guy from the Conoco station.
POV: In the opening scene of the film, there’s a great sheep. He’s just sort of standing there chewing and chewing, and then he looks right at you. Right through the camera at you.
Castaing-Taylor: I can remember shooting that or half remember it. In my mind’s eye, I was really interested in filming a blizzard and there never really was a blizzard, but there were bleak moments of the sheep shivering in the cold. I think it’s an interesting shot because sheep are, proverbially, the world’s dumbest animal. Some people see a Herzovian metaphysical vacuousness in that stare. However, I think majority of people are unsettled by the fact that here is a beast, that culturally has been defined as stupid or insentient, looking at us, and somehow we humans are the object of that stare. Being reduced to an object is amusing and comical, as well as unsettling.
Barbash: In this moment that you’re looking at each other, you say, “Okay, we’re going into this film together.”
POV: Two moments of connection between man and animal really stand out: the shearing scene, when the labor that’s involved in sheep ranching becomes very obvious, and the scene when an orphan lamb is covered with the pelt of a dead lamb and given to that lamb’s mother with the hope that she will mistake it for her own. What did you hope to convey to the viewer in those two scenes?
Castaing-Taylor: One of the things that they try to do during lambing is make sure that a ewe has as many lambs as she can support. A young ewe might only have enough milk for one lamb, but she might give birth to twins. Conversely, there might be a ewe that has enough milk for multiple lambs, but only gave birth to one. Therefore, there is a lot of mix and matching happening. On top of that, there’s a pool of orphans not paired up with biological mothers. There is a 24-hour window to get each one onto a fictive mother by covering them with the caul or the amniotic fluid of another lamb that’s just been born. Otherwise, their own smell will come through. The rancher has to play God in a way. Moreover, the lambing sequence shows how truly domesticated the animal is. Goats and sheep were the first animals that humans ever domesticated for agricultural purposes, about 10,000 years ago. It’s an animal, but it’s an animal that wouldn’t exist without humans, couldn’t exist without humans. The scene shows lambs coming into the world in a way that is mediated by humanity in a physical way.
Barbash: In both of those scenes, you see how close people get to their animals in order to guide them through the activities that they need to guide them through. In all of these you see how hard it is to work with animals but also how connected the people are to them.
POV: Is ‘Sweetgrass’ particular to its own community?
Castaing-Taylor: I think it is specific to a small community. It’s a very modest record of people’s lives up in the mountains and what they do for a living. It also has a more general appeal in that it represents the twilight of a whole chapter of the American West — a century, or more when Native Americans are taken into account, of intense relationships between humans and the land and between humans and animals.
POV: There’s a lot of talk in documentary, but ‘Sweetgrass’ is the almost complete opposite of that.
Castaing-Taylor: It’s a film with not much spoken language. A lot of the spoken language that is included is spoken in fragments rather than in full sentences or with any kind of clarity. It’s spoken indirectly to the other ranchers or as a soliloquy to the sheep. It’s a lullaby trying to bed them down at night rather than to some imagined, unseen TV audience. It’s a different use of the spoken word, a limited one. But, it’s not a silent film. When we did use the spoken voice we worked a lot with wireless lavaliere microphones that could be on people or at times on a dog or a horse or a sheep that could be a mile and a half away from the receiver, and the camera. Because of that, there is an interesting relationship between sound perspective and image or optical perspective. Usually with documentary and television, what you see is what you hear. There’s a realist notion that there should be a one to one correspondence between acoustical and optical perspective. We wanted to play with that tension so that sometimes there would be very proximate sound — someone breathing — while at the same time, there long shot of a mountain that is clearly a mile or two away. The sounds that we do have, both human and nonhuman, are very embodied. They give a sense of, of what it’s like to be in these mountains, trying to herd 3,000 unruly sheep in pretty demanding conditions with predators everywhere.
Barbash: We dropped the idea of doing interviews very early on. The one vestige left of an omniscient being telling you what’s going on would have been a title card in the beginning. We left that out because we didn’t want people to have too many preconceptions when they came to the film. We wanted people to not rely on hearing something for information, but to look at the frame, look at what’s going on, listen to all the ambient sounds around them, and try to see the West and ranching in a way that they’d never otherwise be able to experience. We didn’t want to make a documentary that teaches something. We wanted to make a documentary that makes you feel a particular way and makes you experience something.