An ethnographic study of a vanishing way of life, Sweetgrass follows some of the last modern-day cowboys as they herd sheep into the beautiful Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. The film is an astonishing document, that recalls Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's Grass: A Nation's Battle For Life for its epochal scope, its subtle humor, and its profound depiction of the passing of a lifestyle.
The opening shots depict sheep in wintry pastures, barely standing out against the snow, the sounds of bleating and bell and the white overwhelm the senses. We see a single sheep, in a medium shot, bleating loudly, and then she turns to face the camera in silence. It is a strange moment, and an intriguing choice for a documentary film where the filmmakers seem barely present since its subjects - the sheep and the men and women who tend them - appear almost oblivious to the camera throughout, with rare exceptions such as in this opening shot where the subject of the film breaks the fourth wall, and stares at the camera. A defiant gaze.
The film demands some patience initially, but there is a highly satisfying payoff. The filmmakers work in a tradition of ethnographic filmmaking, attempting to capture a way of life without commentary, so that there is no voiceover, no explanation other than what can be observed. There is no human voice for the first several minutes of the film, and the first human voice we hear is of a farmer making peeping noises as she carries a baby lamb in order to encourage its mother to follow her. The most extended speech is a tirade filled with invectives, of a tired and discouraged shepherd who later complains to his mother via satellite phone that he would rather love these mountains than come to hate them.
The film, which was shot digitally but then blown up to 35mm film for its theatrical release, is quite beautiful; occasionally its digital origins show in the sweeping vistas that lack some of the nuance, depth, and detail of true film, but the patience of the filmmakers and their care and attention in framing images and capturing the difficult reality of the mountain trek, more than makes up for it. Highly recommended.