Go backBack to selection

Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbash, Sweet Grass

An observational documentary that utterly transports you to a forgotten corner of the American West, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s Sweetgrass is billed as a glimpse at the final sheep drive the state of Montana ever hosted. Shot in muddy, early aughts DV, this often funny, occasionally terrifying and almost always beautifully composed film follows a pair of modern shepherds who travel mostly on foot with three thousand sheep over a two hundred mile Montana expanse that cuts across the seemingly unending Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. Without the use of voiceover narration or title cards, the film allows you to soak in the grandeur of the setting while taking stock of the physically torturous work of sheep ranching and herding. While the emphasis is put on the physical execution of the drive as opposed to the forces of modern life that are rendering such practices extinct, one can’t help but feel twinges of regret at the spectre of this aspect of American life and history slipping away so unceremoniously. These cowboys shine through as men of hard won integrity and unshakable spirit, who’s anxieties about predators and the physical toll of their work stay lodged in your brain long after the film’s credits unfurl.

Castaing-Taylor and Barbash, academics who had recently started a family when the project began, spent most of the previous decade making Sweetgrass, which has also led to several installation works drawn from unused footage shot during their several years of following sheep drives in Montana. Both are currently affiliated with Harvard University; Castaing-Taylor is director of Harvard’s new Sensory Ethnography Lab and a professor of Visual & Environmental Studies and Anthropology, while Barbash is an associate curator of Visual Anthropology at the University’s Peabody Museum. There previous doc credits include 1990’s Made in U.S.A. and 1992’s In and Out of Africa.

Sweetgrass opens today at Film Forum in Manhattan.

Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. Courtesy of the Filmmakers.

Filmmaker: How did you come across these particular Montana shepherds as subjects?

Barbash: We were working as professors in at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We were in the Film Studies program and the Anthropology department. We heard through various contacts that there was a rancher who had been ranching all of his life, he was the fourth generation of his family to become a rancher, and he was the last person in the county he was working in to go up and trail a band of sheep into the Beartooth-Absaroka range near Yellowstone Park.

Castaing-Taylor: He was the last in any county in the area.

Barbash: He happened to mention to an east coaster from whom he was leasing the land that he was the last guy and somebody ought to make a film about him. That guy knew someone at NYU, contacted the NYU people and said, “hey, someone should make a film about this guy!” and then our friends at NYU contacted us-

Castaing-Taylor: Thinking our students might want-

Barbash: to make a film-

Castaing-Taylor: [Laughing] No, we’re greedy, we wanted to do it-

Barbash: about this last rancher in Montana and we jumped on it. We were looking for a topic to make a film about the American West. We were living there, we had small children, so we weren’t willing tocouldn’t go very far and the idea was very intriguing to us.

Castaing-Taylor: We were already interested in an idea but we hadn’t found good subjects for it. There’s a single street in Boulder, Colorado called Arapahoe Avenue that houses, among other things, two institutions. One is called the Naropa Institute, and it’s this post Beat, new agey, Buddhist, left leaning, find yourself sort of University where lots of rich people send there kids to study creative writing and stuff. Then, a mile east, is the international publishing and editorial headquarters of Soldier of Fortune, this racist international mercenary magazine that sponsors coup d’etat’s in Angola and around the world. How could these two institutions cohabitate on that one street? Then I realized that the West is the epicenter of the far left, new agers trying to find themselves devoid of any sociocultural constraints, transcendent, the real me, the inner me, and the far right, the libertarians that want to get off the grid, fuck the government, never want to pay taxes, etc, etc. These two communities don’t talk to each other but they are actually quite similar. They’re flipped, structural inversions of the other. We were looking for one community to represent each and do some sort of parallel action going back and forth between these two communities. Before we found the two ideal communities that we wanted, we heard about these shepherds. We weren’t sure that it would work. I went up there during 2001. We decided to invest one summer in it together as a family. That summer was unbelievable, it changed both of our lives, so much so that we stuck with it for three years straight of filming. Then we moved to the east coast, to Boston.

Filmmaker: How long did it take to complete the film from start to finish and at what point did you conceive of making gallery installations out of the footage you’d culled for the film?

Barbash: Initially we conceived of this film as a straight documentary project. We started in March of 2001 doing a little bit of filming and scouting. Then we packed up the kids, our babysitter, dog and cat all into our cars and drove up to Montana for the summer of 2001 to film. We filmed that summer, we filmed the next summer and in 2003 we filmed a little bit more. We had thought initially that we were going to make a film about this last sheep drive but also segue into a kind of debate about land rights issues in Montana. What happened was during the first summer we thought we’d take the whole family up into the mountains. It turned out that thereir were too many predators and bears to send a three year old and a five year old up there. So I stayed down in the flatlands filming what was still going to be this land rights debate, filming alternative ranchers, filming these town meetings about a platinum mine that was polluting the village nearby, all the while Lucien was filming this sheep herders up in the mountains. Then he came down and we compared footage and we found that his was much more compelling so we then started editing the feature length documentary. As we progressed in the editing, which ended up taking five years, we realized that there was all this really striking, compelling footage that he had shot up in the mountains that had takes that were too long to fit into a conventional documentary. Takes and scenes that were quite beautiful and interesting in their own right and needed some kind of different form. That’s how the installation pieces formed, they grew out of the larger project.

Castaing-Taylor: Conceptually, what became Sweetgrass preceded what became the installation pieces. They were born, in rough cut form, while Sweetgrass was finished.

Filmmaker: What were the particular challenges raised by shooting and cutting over such a long period of time? Were you aware ahead of time that you were shooting the last Montana shepherds?

Barbash: We finished shooting the footage that went into the film in 2003. When we went up in 2001 we thought we were shooting the last sheep drive, which you can see in the film is an unbelievably grueling expedition for everyone involved. What happened was, for various reasons, they did it the next summer and then they did it again the next summer. So we started joking that we should call the film “A penultimate sheep drive”. [Laughs]. We thought they might go again, but finally, at a certain point, it just proved to be too much.

Castaing-Taylor: We weren’t invested in it being the last. This tag line that’s on the poster isn’t really a part of the film.

Barbash: Because we had training in Anthropology and Ethnography, we were aware of the ethnographic film trope of going to a community and filming the last people that were doing some kind of traditional ritual…

Filmmaker: From Nanook of the North on its been a trope of a certain kind of doc framework…

Barbash: Yes, Exactly.

Castaing-Taylor: It’s an embarrassing trope.

Barbash: It’s an embarrassing trope, but we when went and filmed with that in mind, being very self-conscious of the ironies of filming the last of something within a culture that to a large extent is our own, the American West, and then to a large extent different from that of a New Yorker and a…

Castaing-Taylor: Liverpudlian.

Filmmaker: How did that self-consciousness designing the film and representing their daily lives?

Castaing-Taylor: It affected us consciously and unconsciously. This weariness of the trope of the disappearing other and yet our willingness to engage with it, I think there are two things you can take from it. One is, whilst the super sensitive viewer might as they go along realize that there is something that suggests this is something that might not happen anymore, you’re never told that until the final title card, where as the conventional documentary would tell you that up front, which would then cast the hundred and one minutes with that emphasis. You don’t get that. Also, the way we recorded the film soundwise, with the wireless lav mics, where you might have two sources that are miles away from each other and all the spoken sound is sync sound, there is no voiceover, they way they cuss, they way they snore, the way they pee, the way they live their lives is super real. The way all of our lives are, the way George Bush and Barack Obama’s lives are, but typically documentary subjects when they are in front of the camera want to put on their Sunday best and dress up, act up. They are performing in away an idealized version of themselves. We were interested in the nitty gritty, the difficulty of life as it’s lived, and the difficulty of these peoples’s lives, of cowboys lives, of shepherds lives. When we look at the whole history of the pastoral, the poetry from the classics onward, of painting, of the pastoral as a genre within mythology and literature, within cinema too, such as Nanook of the North for example, you get so little sense of what immense amount of labor is involved in a day of a shepherd’s life, what its actually like to inhabit the body of a shepherd rather than the bourgeois consumer representation of some idealized relationship to nature.

Filmmaker: What kind of relationships did you foster with these men over half a decade and how did that affect how you chose to depict them in film and installations?

Castaing-Taylor: Two things. For a European, I couldn’t believe there was anything that remote. It’s a long way away. I couldn’t believe there was anything that remote in the lower forty-eight states. You think that in the lower forty-eight there’s no way you’d get more than twenty-five or thirty miles from a road, but it’s not true. There are places in those mountains that take five weeks to get up there with the sheep and the sheep bog down and its at least another three weeks to get down. When your stuck at 11,000 feet for two months with two guys you don’t know, you become very intimate and you share things with each other in a way you probably wouldn’t with people you know better, because you have less to lose and you probably won’t see each other again and so on. Two months in New York City when you’re busy can go by in a flash. Two months at 11,000 feet in the Absaroka-Beartooths is an eternity, so it’s amazing how close you become. There were three of us; there’s Pat, the young guy, John, the older guy, and me. Pat and I are about the same age; John is older than us both. John is a Vietnam vet. He’s had a tough time in life, they’re both super hard scrabble hired hand sorts, they’ll break horses, put up fences, sheer sheep, any type of job they can get. Then here I am, I could barely speak English, at least a kind that they could understand, being from Liverpool. I was a city boy. I had never ridden a horse in my life. I was a total greenhorn. So I was their apprentice really.

Two other things that are relevant for how we got along are that stereotypically Western culture fetishizes and places a value on athleticism, strength and fortitude, the ability to to undergo tough circumstances and never complain and so on. The camera equipment was super heavy and grueling. They were, for some reason, struck and amazed that I was able to hold the entire camera apparatus and climb the whole time without having a heart attack. They were impressed that I was doing as much work as they were with the sheep. When I wasn’t filming, I was still wearing this bizarre harness that was suspending the camera. I would wear it from dawn to dusk. I had extremely powerful, long lasting batteries so I wouldn’t have to replace them and risk making them self-conscious. So they weren’t really aware. Even at lunch, I would set the camera on my shoulder. That weren’t conscious of being filmed or not being filmed. Initially, there was, but after a couple weeks they just forgot about it; there was no me without the camera except when I had just had enough. So just the three of us stuck up there with three thousand sheep and a few dogs, its a lot of work. Its twenty-four seven you’re on. You have a lot of shared experience, an elevated sense of danger, a sense of the stakes involved, its almost like a biblical mission.

Filmmaker: How have your subjects responded to the film?

Castaing-Taylor: They’ve all seen this and they’ve all seen rough cuts of the installation pieces. They all have different reactions. They all say they liked it. They all want more copies. I think there is a sense of vulnerability, of rawness, combined with a sense of “well, here’s fifteen minutes of fame”. They’re really happy to get represented. They see themselves as a very marginalized community that never gets represented normally and is often scapegoated. Ranching used to be king, and now it’s almost impossible to get by as a family rancher.

It was interesting having not been familiar with Montana, how massively important these rural ethnicities were, to be Irish or to be Norwegian. One county is seventy percent Scottish, while another is eighty perent Norwegian. It’s phenomenal, it’s such a part of their identities. All the jokes are about stubborn Norwegians, or stubborn Irish people. The two main characters in the film are of Irish descent. The ranch is owned by people of Norwegian descent. Most of our time was spent with the ranch owners and their families and extended families and the ‘Wegians as they call themselves. There is a sense that the ‘Wegians are oppressed; some ‘Wegian kids even think that ‘Wegians are not allowed to go to college, that there is some federal law prohibiting Norwegian Americans from going to college, that they’re all stupid and not educatible. Any subjugated minority internalizes the majority’s perception of itself, but this is something else entirely.

Filmmaker: You show us in very visceral terms how demanding physically and emotionally herding is. While you were filming them, did these men see themselves doing anything else after shepherding was no longer an option? Why did they keep coming back?

Barbash: John, the Vietnam Vet, is cousins with Pat, which is something we don’t make clear in the film. We couldn’t figure out how to do that. They’ve both grown up in not very wealthy circumstances. Everyday they’ve got to work. They are not landowners. The land owners work everyday as well, but these guys are descended from hired hands and they’re hired hands. They take what comes up. The opportunity to go into the mountain is a few months of work where they are not spending any money at all. The amount they get paid is not very much. They are never going to get rich off something like that. This is what they are comfortable with. I think you can tell at a certain point that these guys weren’t going to keep going up there. It’s just too hard. They’re working against these predators, the wolves and the bears, which are federally protected, but also against the various kinds of protections that are not instilled in the West. If you were to defend your flock against a bear or a wolf, you are not allowed to kill that bear or wolf or you go to prison and get an enormous fine. So you’re not only seeing the rancher doing his last sheep drive, but you’re seeing the hired hands doing their last sheep drive.

Castaing-Taylor: I would say that there is a very prevalent sense of anger. Not at their lot in life, because the whole history of the colonization of the west and the homesteaders and onwards was Scandinavians and Europeans being lured here by great lies from railroad ads, you go out west and get your 40, 160, or 600 acres, you get rich and it’s all green and sunny and so on. It might be for a few years, but then you have a drought that will last five years and then they end up penniless. Its always been super hard, its more than in recent years, no one respects ranching, no one respects family ranching, everything is being sold out to agro-business. Americans don’t eat lamb, the only Americans who eat significant amounts of lamb statistically are diasporic middle-easterners, Arab, Iranians, Greeks, etc. The annual American consumption of lamb has dropped precipitously since the second World War. We don’t wear wool anymore. We wear synthetic clothes. Most of the wool worn shorn in this country is shipped out to in from China, who have more heads of sheep than any other country in the world, so they hardly need our wool.

When you are part of a tradition that you thought had some value, some centrality in your world and the universe, then you feel it suddenly becoming marginalized and there is this sense that you’re being demeaned, that things are ending in a sad way, it’s devastating. Then of course, there’s Californians and Eeast coasters and other people of means and considerable wealth that has been amassed through finance or banking or… certainly not through working the land, city folks basically, dotcomers, etcetera, they want to become gentleman ranchers. They want to buy a ranch out west and live the whole Ted Turner dream. The land prices have skyrocketed. There is no way that a rancher, someone who actually wanted to make a living off of the land, could actually afford the land and make a living from working it.

Barbash: Its not as if you work your way up then make enough money to buy the farm.

Filmmaker: Which is of course a central part of the mythology of the American West to begin with…

Castaing-Taylor: Yes yes, that you work for enough time as a hired hand and then you buy your own land, like in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Filmmaker: As the Scandinavian settlers in John Ford movies do.

Castaing-Taylor: Yes.

Filmmaker: Is there any sort of burgeoning political consciousness, be it about America’s absurdly pro agro-business farm subsidies or broken tariff system, that these ranchers channel any of that anger into? Can it make any difference?

Castaing-Taylor: There is definitely a political consciousness, or political consciousnesses, but I was struck when making this film how little disassociation there is between agro-businesses and small family farming and family ranching and the extent to which the few family ranchers left still identify with agriculture as a whole without realizing the extent to which the subsidies from Washington go almost exclusively, 99 percent, to giant Agro-businesses and not to support family ranchers or farmers. So they would be for various things that wouldn’t benefit them at all. They wouldn’t realize what is actually happening. There’s also a deep political consciousness about the role of environmentalists, which is often the inverse of what you might expect. The whole Erin Brockovich thing, that movie with Julia Roberts in it where she’s a working class girl standing up to depradation of some corporate capitalist takeover ruining the environment somewhere. In Montana, it’s the exact opposite. It’s the middle class, hyper educated, urban college kids, fleeing their cities, who have a rarified view of authentic, “pristine” nature in their minds, wanting to get these few hard scrabble family farmers off the land because nominally they are over-fertilizing it, polluting it or they land because they supposedly don’t know how to be good, custodial, sustainable, managers of the land or because they are trailing domesticated animals, which is “unnatural,” into a natural grizzly bear habitat in these mountains. So these people, with immense wealth and education are trying to come in and disenfranchise the local population. In that regard the resentment that the local ranching community and hired hands have towards those people is pretty understandable I would say, but their there isn’t much disassociation between the poor family farmers who are struggling to survive, to eke out a living one year to the next, and the realization that agriculture now in the states is controlled by just a handful of these massive companies.

Barbash: There is also resentment that over Australian lamb and New Zealand wool and the protections that those countries give their farmers that we don’t.

Castaing-Taylor: There is a resentment that New Zealand lamb is eaten in Montana and why are more people eating locally.

Barbash: Or when tariffs get removed.

Castaing-Taylor: I think they feel not unlike how American artists feel. You go on the film festival circuit and every other country has some protections and representation and support from their own countries from arts administrations and ministries, etcetera, and American artists have nothing. If they’re working in Hollywood they have the studio system to support them, but otherwise, independent films, low budget films, nothing. So they have a feeling that New Zealanders, with all their protections and tariffs are better off, but for brute economic reasons, we don’t hardly eat lamb anymore, we don’t hardly wear wool anymore, there just isn’t much of a livelihood in it, and the whole economy has shifted over the last fifty years from a production based economy to this whole massive, mushrooming tertiary sector – the service industry and finance. There’s no money in production anyway, at least industrial production, when compared to what there was in past days, when compared to plastic and currency speculation and derivatives.

Filmmaker: Oil speculation.

Castaing-Taylor: Exactly.

Barbash: There are some alternative ranchers who are embracing some new ideas about ranching. I met a woman who is marketing her wool under something called a creditor friendly label and marketing her meat only that way. The idea is that they don’t use guard dogs, they are using llamas actually; llamas are really tall and they can kick pretty hard, so they can protect you to some extent, not up in the mountains, but in the flatlands they can protect sheep to some extent against wolves and cayotes. So I think that we’re talking about the demise of the traditional rancher, and then you’ve got new little alternative pockets springing up who maybe more political active and against things like subsidies for agro-business and the like.

Filmmaker: The film has an overwhelmingly elegiac quality to it and yet I sense this might be something that you’re ambivalent about.

Barbash: That is what this the Western film in cinema has always been, in a way. The western film has always been that. It harkens back to a place and a way of life that took place a hundred years earlier.

Castaing-Taylor: Even at the time of the original classic Westerns it was always recreating this mentality world that had long since elapsed. It was deliberate on our part. Within ethnographic film, the notion of being nostalgic was in a way some retro, so passé that nobody would go there. Everyone is supposed to embrace novel, socraticsyncretic, emergent forms of being, various forms of cosmopolitanism, etcetera, which is all true and all important, but the fact of the matter is that these ways of life are disappearing the whole time too and we shouldn’t just ignore that because otherwise there will be not requiem, there will be no elegy, there will be no mourning, no historical consciousness. We just didn’t want the nostalgia to be the principle aesthetic sensibility as you were watching the piece. We wanted it to be part of it, but for it to come right at the end, as a shock. You have the two guys going away in the truck, off into nowhere, into a very uncertain future, representing the whole community and all its uncertainty, deliberately hinting at an immense melancholy and sentimental attachment for all these guys going off into the unknown, and then you have a title card saying that this is never going to happen anymore. It’s the end of something, of a whole way of being in the world, and of relating to the land. Then right at the end of this interminable credit sequence that lasts almost as long as the movie itself, you have an In Memoriam, not of a person, but of a ranch. Usually it’s always of a person, but here its of a ranch, all of that was totally deliberate. There is an immense amount of sadness that we wanted to communicate about how this is a livelihood, this is a way of being in the world, a way of cohabitation between humans and animals that has been hugely important throughout human history for the last 10,000 years since the Neolithic revolution, and it has ended in the American West.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham