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Seen and Herd: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Sweetgrass”

Seen and Herd: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's "Sweetgrass"

For a good 20 minutes or so, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s experiential documentary Sweetgrass appears to be predominantly about sheep. As if a dark, barnyard version of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s The Private Life of a Cat (in which we witness the rich day-to-day life of an average housecat from its perspective), Sweetgrass at first presents a “sheep’s eye view” of the milestones in a sheep’s life, from shearing to childbirth. The empathy we feel for these animals is extraordinary, immediate, and somewhat difficult to pinpoint the source of, as no obvious cinematic trick is employed in order to conjure it. In one scene, a farmhand moves a newly born lamb into a pen, and when she turns back to collect its mother, the sheep has disappeared amongst the flock, leaving the farmhand blinking blankly at the hundreds of identical eyes staring back at her. The effect is inexplicably ominous: through the sequence the viewer is kept anxious until the mother finally emerges to join its child. While Sweetgrass is ultimately not solely about sheep but the ecosystem of the American West—from the sheep to the dogs to the people to the mountains—this initial focus is not misleading so much as indicative of the many surprises this grand documentary Western holds in store. Read Farihah Zaman’s review of Sweetgrass.

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