Friday, January 15, 2010

Sheep Are Just Like Sheep

I'm not an animal person. I like animals on a case by case basis, but I don't look at an animal and immediately swell with adoration and affection. So Sweetgrass, a new doc about Montana sheep and their herders, would not have been my first choice for Friday night viewing. But Sara Varon was really excited about seeing it, and I was curious about the attention it has been getting, so we went to a packed screening at Film Forum tonight. And it was quite nice. I was worried at first that I was sitting in a theater full of animal fanatics who would coo and aww at each cute sheep face. But in the first shot a sheep who is chewing on some grass and minding her own business slowly turns her head to the camera and stops chewing as she realizes she's being observed. It was a moment I could appreciate in my anthropomorphic relation to animals and the rest of the audience seemed to be with me in this.

Sweetgrass is an entirely observational documentary, and the only time the filmmakers are even referred to is toward the end of the film when a herder comments when a herd dog almost treads on a camera. Considering it's just a film about sheep in pastures, perhaps it's remarkable that Sweetgrass is never boring and I never once thought, "When is this gonna be over?" I learned that sheep are really just such... sheep. I wondered about the men and women who tended to the sheep. I was mesmerized by the sheering, it was almost meditative. I was reminded of Brokeback Mountain. I thought of the Swiss Alps (filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbash seem to have both Swiss and Cal Arts connections) and where these sheep herding families came from. It reminded me how much I love Montana, made me want to go there and be in the mountains. But it did not make me want to work with sheep. The work looked grueling and thankless. I wondered about why this sheep ranch was closed a few years ago. Sweetgrass was contemplative and pleasant and left me with more questions than answers, which in this case is fine.

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