First domesticated stock animal
Spurred the onset of modern capitalism
Responsible for human population of the New World
For nearly twenty years, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have sought to depict, as honestly as possible, the beauty and ache of actual lived experience. In their new film, Sweetgrass, the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based couple examine the world of raising sheep and sheepherding in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, in south-central Montana. This pointedly unsentimental and often startlingly intimate film provides, without commentary, an everyday view of life on a ranch and up in the mountains where three thousand sheep are being driven to feed—for the last time. Sheepherding is relentlessly grueling work, and the film, simply by getting out of the way, allows for viewers to experience this hard labor firsthand. Sweetgrass was an official selection at the 2009 New York and Berlin film festivals and opened theatrically at the Film Forum in New York City this January. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor met in film school at USC in the late 1980s. Barbash is a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and Castaing-Taylor is director of Harvard’s new Sensory Ethnography Lab, and a professor of Visual & Environmental Studies and of Anthropology. Their latest book is The Cinema of Robert Gardner (Berg, 2008), a comprehensive look at the man many consider the father of ethnographic filmmaking. One of Barbash and Castaing-Taylor’s previous films, In and Out of Africa, a provocative take on the African art trade shot in the Ivory Coast and New York, raised important questions about what it means to be authentically “African,” and who decides. Barbash grew up in New York City; Castaing-Taylor in Liverpool, UK. The interview was conducted over email and the phone in December 2009.
THE BELIEVER: What I especially appreciate about Sweetgrass is that, like the best literature, it refrains from overexplaining. The film opens and we immediately descend into this world of sheep and sheepherding. But why sheep? How did you get started with this project?
ILISA BARBASH: We were teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in film and anthropology, and looking for local topics. When we found out that a Montana rancher was the last in the county to be driving his sheep up into the mountains, we thought it might make a great film topic. It was close enough to be feasible, in a beautiful area, and involved some drama. We also loved the fact that it was the last of something. It’s a hackneyed and by now totally discredited trope of ethnographic filmmakers to film cultures on the wane, or in their death throes—it’s called salvage ethnography. I don’t mean to sound callous about the tragedy of these disappearing life ways, nor to denigrate the importance of documenting them. I did, however, enjoy the irony of finding such a moment in such a modern setting in my own backyard.
LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR: I went up there in the spring of 2001 and stayed for a week, wondering if there might be a movie there. I wasn’t sure, but we decided to devote a summer to it as a family. It was an amazing experience for us all. I ended up falling in love with the people, just as I was falling in love with the West at the time. The landscape, the freedom, the aesthetics of the space—everything about it bowled me over. As a European, I could never get over the sheer scale of the Absaroka-Beartooths, the fact that there could be anywhere so remote in the lower forty-eight. It takes them four to five weeks to trail the sheep from the ranch to the basins—about eighty miles, on hoof the whole way. In the Alps and the Pyrenees these days, they’re trucked up to the pasture. And here we are in twenty-first-century USA.
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