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Sweetgrass (2009)Sweetgrass (2009)

This documentary about Montana sheep ranchers eulogizes a way of life that until 2006 existed much as it did a hundred years ago. In 2003 the herders guided their flock 150 miles down the Beartooth Mountains of Montana on horseback and with dogs. Their walkie talkies are about their only modern convenience. The work is grueling, the landscape is harsh, and the scenery is breath-taking. Marauding grizzly bears attack the flocks at night and are chased away by gunfire that ricochets throughout the empty mountains. Shearing, birthing, nursing, and cropping the tails of lambs take us through the daily rhythms on the sheep ranch. This film doesn't have a single sentence of narration; the only sounds are the non-stop bleating of hundreds of sheep and the background conversations of the cowboys. It could have been much better with at least some historical and contemporary context given for viewers. The images are powerful, but they don't (and can't) always speak for themselves. In 2006 the permits that allowed the herders to graze their sheep on federal lands were not renewed, the ranch was sold, and so the film of the 2003 sheep drive records a way of life that is likely gone forever.

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