Though the breathtaking vistas of Big Sky Country in Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylors unforgettable sheep-herding documentary, come close to heaven, its telling that AC/DCs Highway to Hell can be faintly heard over the sound of the electronic contraptions that hired hands yield to shear the docile creatures, one of the preparatory stages before the roundup begins. A record of the last time, in the early aughts, that cowboys led their flocks up into Montanas Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture, the film captures the arduousness and the awe (not awww) of a vanishing way of life. Animals strike curious poses: One of the white, fluffy sheep stares right into Castaing-Taylors camera as the film begins, a moment played not for critter cuteness but for ovine empathy, immediately setting the patient, unsentimental, observational tone. Just as you begin to distinguish the sounds of different bleats, you witness the absurd force of the sheep en masse as they run past a Radio Shack on a small-town street. High up in the mountains, they become unwieldy, leading enraged herder Pat Connolly to string together the most inspired blue streak ever uttered against ewes. Sweetgrass reminds us of the stupefying magnificence of its setting beautiful for spacious skies and mountain majesties while never letting us forget its formidable perils.
May 14-20, 2010