Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 17, 2009 3:30 pm 
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Last of the American mountain shepherds

Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are Harvard ethnographers and anthropologists; she is from New York and he's English. They are an energetic couple who have made films about the African art trade (In and Out of Africa 1992) and L.A. garment sweatshops (Made in U.S.A. 1990) and are involved in interactive media, photography exhibitions, and innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. They were living in Colorado in 2001 when they learned about a Norwegian-American family that had been herding sheep long distances up into Montana public lands for summer grazing for four generations, all on the hoof, over 150 miles. Word got around that this might not be happening much longer and somebody ought to film it. Because the trek was too arduous to do otherwise, Barbash stayed at home with their two small children and Taylor did the DV filming and recording.

The 101-minute film, without narration, takes the viewer deep into the land, the herd movement, and the hard, solitary life of the shepherds. The visuals are beautiful and intimate. Taylor gets close to the sheep and to the men. The pace is measured. There's slowness and monotony, but there's excitement and stress too. The filming was done mostly in 2001, some additional in 2003, and editing wasn't completed till early 2009.

Hollywood Reporter reviewed the film in connection with the Berlin festival and notes, "Slow-paced documentary on sheep, shepherds and their environment needs further shearing." The writer remarks on one hired hand's lengthy recorded outburst up in the mountains when he's had enough, remarking that his "Frustrations are vented in an extended, entertainingly expletive-studded rant, the vehemence of which would make Christian Bale blush."

This one long unguarded rant is possible because the sound involved wireless recording devices (they cost more than the camera) that enabled Taylor to hear conversations or monologues spoken a mile or two away. At first the emphasis is on the sheep in the herd and one by one. Later the film shows herders at the ranch shearing the sheep, helping them give birth, sorting lambs. On rare occasions when there is dialogue and not just a man talking to his horse or the sheep, it's sometimes laughably monosyllabic. A young man tells a joke about brains for sale where the cowboy's is the most expensive because it's 'never been used."

This is indeed specialized festival material. Omitting commentary or any intertitles to structure time or identify individuals has its plusses and minuses. As I've noted, the film takes you deep into the landscape and the experience. The anguished rant of a hired hand talking on a phone to his mother about his damanged knee, intractable dogs and sheep,and lack of sleep is an excellent reality check for viewers who might want to make this a "Home on the Range" idyll in their minds.

But if you want to find out the facts, as apart from the sights and sounds, of the world depicted here, you have to go somewhere else. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor were present for a Q&A with Richard Peña, FSLC director. Taylor in particular provided a lot of useful facts and figures. His data made clear that the disappearance of sheep herding isn't due to agri-business takeover so much as to environmentalists who strangely consider shepherds an alien invasion of nature, and the fact that Americans wear less wool and more artificial fiber and eat a hundred times more beef than lamb meat.

There is some more detailed information about the filmmakers in the blog,"Cinema and Social Sciences" [now missing, but there is a book--2015]. See the NYFF 2008 site for iinformation.

Sweetgrass, 101 mins. (name of the county in Montana where the ranch was; it's now defunct after 105 years, and the family has bought land 30 times cheaper in Canada) is an official selection of the New York Film Festival 2009. It debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 4, 2009.

For more about Casting-Taylor and the Harvard Ethnography lab see my review of El mar la mar (2017).

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