PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor

First things first: Lucien Castaing-Taylor's official title on Sweetgrass is 'recordist' rather than 'director'. This speaks volumes about the style of this documentary, as the anthropologist-filmmaker delivers a piece about sheep-herding in Montana completely devoid of talking heads, re-enactments or voiceovers.

Edited down from thousands of hours of footage, Sweetgrass is 13/4 hours of pure, mesmerising visual magic. It combines a depiction of the herders' travails in driving their 3,000-strong flock across the mountains for grazing with stunningly beautiful scenes of raw nature.

Sweetgrass is a landmark in the sense that it chronicles the last trek of a family of Norwegian-American herders in 2003 before their farm closed the next year - as stipulated in the film's tagline, 'the last ride of the American cowboy'. Sweetgrass offers a look at a dying profession and also the demise of yet another part of traditional life in the American west.

Castaing-Taylor has added to the cultural vaults a perspective which goes beyond Ang Lee's romantic representation of the way of life in Brokeback Mountain. It's a challenging work and bears witness to how herders leave the trek one after the other, with two - the visibly fatigued John Ahern and Pat Connolly - sticking with the journey through to the end.

What makes Sweetgrass a great film, however, is the staggering visuals on offer, such as the sight of the woolly bleaters filling the main street of a small town, for example, or splattering their way across a river.

The framing of the action is masterful, as it coaxes a maximalist visual power out of the minimalist repetition of sheep marching, eating and resting.

Following in the footsteps of the recent slate of artistically inclined documentaries about rural professions - from Michelangelo Frammatino's The Four Times (on rural life in Calabria, Italy, which also includes an old herder and his sheep) to Sharon Lockhart's Double Tide (a static look at clam-digging on a mudflat in Maine), Sweetgrass is another example of art and life coming together perfectly to create a perfect visual experience.

Extras: director's commentary, deleted scenes, additional short film, essay on the future of non-fictional cinema, trailer