Aired Tuesday July 5th, 2011 at 11:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
Herd in Montana's mountains
Magnificently filmed, Sweetgrass captures a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans are on intimate terms, and sometimes violently at odds. For generations Lawrence Allestand, a Norwegian-American, has driven his herds into Montana's rugged Absaroka-Beartooth range north of Yellowstone National Park. There, his 3,000 sheep graze on sweet summer grass. The Allestand family and their hired hands conducted the drives much as their pioneer forebears had -- on horseback, with dogs for herding and guarding, and armed with rifles to frighten away bears and wolves.
Sweetgrass, by filmmaker-anthropologists Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, has its national broadcast premiere on POV (Point of View) on Tuesday, July 5 at 11:00 p.m. on KUED Channel 7.
The crew, riding and hiking with camera gear in tow, follow the sheepherders and 3,000 sheep on a hard and lonely drive. Without narration, Sweetgrass lets the camera, often at sheep-level, reveal the beauty and drama of sheepherding.
In Big Timber, Montana the film explores the seasonal world of sheep ranching. In winter, under the watchful eyes of the Allestand family and their hired hands Ahern and Connolly the herd nuzzles through the snow in search of feed. In spring, the sheep are shorn of their thick winter coats and lambs are born. Orphaned lambs, known as 'bummers,' have to be hand-fed. Sweetgrass reveals the unyielding hard work of a sheepherder's life. Humor, though, is often invoked to help pass the time.
In the first week of July the hard and lonely 250-mile horseback drive begins. Climbing high into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Ahern, Connolly and their dogs will herd the sheep from July until September. Escorting a virtual buffet on hooves, the men will have to stave off bears and wolves. Filmmaker Castaing-Taylor was charged by grizzly bears and returned home from the drive 20 pounds lighter.
On the trail of the herders, Sweetgrass unveils a rarely seen wilderness, awesome in both its vastness and exclusiveness. Castaing-Taylor captures the beauty of the landscape, and also the slow, difficult rhythms of the drive and its daily grinding work, punctuated by strange incidents and sudden crises.
Ahern, with the weathered looks and few words of a man who's seen it all, seems to take everything in stride. But when some of the sheep, in a tight spot, lose their grip and fall off a cliff, it's difficult not to sympathize with the exasperated herders.
"Spending the summers high in the Rocky Mountains, among the herders, the sheep and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days," says Castaing-Taylor.
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