Celebrate a vanishing America in PBS’s Sweetgrass

There is a moment in Sweetgrass—an immersive documentary about the vanishing life of Montana’s horseback sheep herders—when you’ll sit up straight, blink your eyes and wonder if children are listening to these herders! That’s saying something, because most of the movie has no human language at all—only the sounds of sheep, horses, dogs, birds, farm machinery and wind in the grassy mountain valleys and passes.

That style is no accident. Sweetgrass was produced by a Harvard-based team of anthropologists. For two decades, Lucien Castaing-Taylor has been an international pioneer in new forms of ethnography (immersive studies of the relationships within real-life communities). He’s currently director of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. The co-creator of Sweetgrass was Ilisa Barbash, a curator at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Their scholarly discipline tries to capture a pure slice of their subject matter—then convey that unvarnished slice of life to the public. That means: No fact-filled title screens. No voice-over narration. Just the herding life—just sheep, horses, dogs, birds, farm machinery, wind and a few wild bears who make a brief cameo appearance.

What makes this slice of life so special?
Film critics around the world have celebrated Sweetgrass, which was produced a couple of years ago and now finally is making a TV debut on PBS’ POV series. Although Barbash and Castaing-Taylor did not realize it at first, they wound up recording the last of the great sheep drives across public lands in the Montana mountains. The way of life we see in Sweetgrass—now is gone in the remote Absaroka-Beartooth range!

What’s that startling moment?
Well, we won’t spoil the film, but it’s very easy to get lulled into an impression that these horseback herders are Marlboro men. A couple of these cowboys look like they walked off a John Wayne Western and into this documentary. But, this film honestly shows us their incredibly tough life—and the cost on these men and their loved ones. Mid-way through the movie, one of the tough-as-leather cowboys has an emotional breakdown. High atop a mountain, he unfolds his cell phone, calls his mother and pours his heart out to Mom about all the woes and wounds of the trail. In the original documentary, he unleashed enough angry R-rated language in his moment of crisis to make a gangster blush! PBS is bleeping out the worst of it—but you’ll get the point. Even Marlboro men can crack under the stress of long drives through the mountains.

ReadTheSpirit is recommending the weekly POV series for individual viewing and small-group discussion—so, we earlier published a complete overview of the season.
You’ll find lots of questions to raise in Sweetgrass: How does this square with our iconic image of American cowboys? What does this say about the changing culture of the West? What beloved—or troubling—images are we carrying around with us about the farming life in America? How does Sweetgrass confirm—or pierce—our assumptions about farming?


Right now, PBS-POV is streaming the entire Sweetgrass movie for free via the PBS App on iPad. In our ReadTheSpirit Home Office, we tested that iPad version—as well as a DVD screener of the film—and the App delivered a smooth, beautiful version of the film to the iPad screen.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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