299) Sweetgrass (2009) Dir: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castying-Taylor Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: September 17, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
I'm not surprised that I liked Sweetgrass because I going into it, I knew I admired its filmmakers' approach. The impressionistic method of documentary filmmaking that co-directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Casting-Taylor employ relies more heavily on sensory impressions of its subjects. These primarily dialogueless images of sheep, people and the majestic landscape of Big Timber, Montana, speak for themselves and provide so much more enriching detail than most "talking head" docs could. So I'm not at all shocked to find that the film's beginning and ending lured me in, though I am a bit disappointed that the middle was not nearly as engaging.
Still, it makes sense that that happened in film like Sweetgrass, which relies so much on the speed that its images collide into one another. When the kinetic energy supplied by the juxtaposition of adjacent scenes wanes like it does in the middle, the film just doesn't hold together like it should. That's probably because the middle segment of the film is mainly concerned with the moving from place to place of a herd of sheep. It's not exactly full of rising action, y'know?
That having been said, the footage that Casting-Taylor caught, whittled down from 200 hours of footage with audio recorded on eight separate clip-on mics, is definitely affecting. You reall get a sense that you're looking at events from an insider's POV rather than someone that is condescending to the farmers and herders that corral the sheep, something that could have easily happened but never quite does (even in the scene where one rancher bawls out to his mommy on the phone or another where he unleashes a hilariously unholy string of cusswords at a 3000-strong herd of mutton).
That's probably because Casting-Taylor and Barbash had the luxury and the extreme patience to film over the course of three years--2001-03--and to have edited up until February of this year. That kind of focus, which wisely allowed them to see that they shouldn't follow Barbash's impulse and make the film about a dispute over the grazing land the sheep, reaps a lot of great scenes.