Sweetgrass is a documentary about of a group of American Sheep herders from Montana – who, somewhat strangely, are called cowboys – and follows them as they take their sheep on a journey to summer pastures and back. This is story of the last ever group of people to drive sheep up into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains in Montana on a grazing permit that has been in their family for generations.
Montana is part of the so-called Wild West, and large parts of this state are untouched by civilization, which makes it both an ideal place to herd sheep, and a land full of potential threats like bears and wolverines. The cowboys are putting themselves in harm’s way, but it’s the sheep that find themselves in the most trouble.
It’s astonishing to think that in a country with a population as high as the USA, there are vast sections where there just aren’t any people. In many ways, the mountainous landscape is as unforgiving as any desert, and this can be seen by the degrading physical state of both the dogs and the people on the journey. In one emotional phone call to his mother – which he had to climb to the top of a hill and stand in a thorn bush to make – one of the cowboys vents his frustration, telling of how his body is hurting, his dog is going lame, and he is, frankly, ‘sick of this shit.’
For large sections of the film, few words are spoken and a lot of what we do hear is from one old rancher talking and singing to himself – including an version of ‘she’ll be coming round the mountain’ as he is actually driving the herd down a mountain. The most astonishing bit of monologue comes from the younger of the two who wakes up in a bad mood and unleashes one of the best off the cuff streams of swearing ever heard. The creativity is amazing and after about two minutes of solid cursing he comes to his senses and sighs, “I need a day off.”
Sweetgrass is an epic story and the film is 140 minutes hours of footage cut down from over 200 hours shot in the field. There are points when the film starts to feel very long – 30 second shots of sheep chewing, for example – but a lot of it is surprisingly compelling, and provides a wonderful look at a now dead tradition.