'Sweetgrass' a love letter to the West

LIZ BRAUN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:34 PM ET

Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.

So you'd gather from a documentary called Sweetgrass, a love letter to the old West that shows all the hardships and all the beauty involved in working a herd.

In this case, the herd is sheep, and the people who raise and tend them are a dying breed of workaholics. An anthropologist's dream and a desk-job guy's worst nightmare, Sweetgrass reveals the intense labour involved -- for man and beast -- in the seemingly simple annual task of moving a flock up to high pasture to graze.

Sweetgrass takes place in and around the town of Big Timber and the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains of Montana. Almost completely without dialogue or music (except for what seems to be Highway to Hell playing in the barn during a sheep-shearing scene), the movie shows the animals moving through an extraordinary physical landscape and initially shows them eating, being shorn and having babies in lambing season.

Once the annual summer migration begins up into the mountain range, things change. First comes the amazing sight of a massive flock of sheep moving through town, and then the slow journey to pasture begins. Although the camera tends to stay out of the faces of the humans in Sweetgrass, there are scenes of setting up camp the old-fashioned way, hints of the horsefly situation (or are they bluebottles?) and shots of the awe-inspiring physical surroundings.

Those surroundings include any number of places for sheep and people to get stuck: Streams to cross, piles of deadwood, thick brush, large rocks. The sheep get stuck, they wander, they spread out too far from one another, they bleat. As the film makes clear, sheep need constant attention. The word 'ornery' comes up more than once.

And then there are the predators. Bears are sighted; wolverines are talked about. At night, all is dark and desolate, with only the remarkable dogs to sound a warning if any four-legged danger comes near. A gutted sheep is the distressing clue that something is stalking the herd. After a heart-rending scene that has one cowboy weeping over the phone to his mother about the endless frustration and physical mishaps -- he, his dog and his horse are all lame from scrabbling up and down the hills after sheep -- you begin to wonder how anyone could still live this way.

And in fact, they generally don't. The idea for Sweetgrass began with Lawrence Allested, a rancher who was the very last in the area to drive his sheep long distances into the mountains to take advantage of his family's grazing permit. The filmmakers began following the sheep drive in 2001; before Sweetgrass was even finished, the ranch and the sheep had been sold off. The movie celebrates a particular lifestyle and it's an homage to a dying tradition -- a slice of history that's fascinating to witness.

(This film is not rated in theatres)


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