Understanding that documentaries rarely make an impact with mainstream audiences outside of Michael Moore films and sports stories like Undefeated or Hoop Dreams, I consider myself to be a fan. Hell, the very first movie I reviewed for this blog was the Oscar-winning opera documentary, In the Shadow of the Stars, and it’s been a love affair with great documentaries ever since (Children Underground, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Road to Guantanamo just to name a few). The chance to see into another life and another world in a truthful way is something that you don’t often get from fiction (except for anything David Simon makes). However, the key to a great documentary is more often than not (I’ve realized over these last two years) great editing. You can have a fascinating concept, but if you don’t capture the right material (or aren’t choosy enough about what material to present), your film will not succeed to its fullest, and a lack of decent editing is the only thing keeping 2010’s Sweetgrass from reaching the ranks of the great documentaries of this decade.
Because conceptually, Sweetgrass taps into something that few other documentaries really attempt to find. Rather than utilizing subject interviews or voice-over narration or any type of conventional expository structure, Sweetgrass is instead just an hour and forty four minute series of images (with often excruciatingly long shots but more on that shortly) and it expects the viewer to follow along and relate to the trials and tribulations of its protagonists without being led by the hand in any way whatsoever. And I respect the film for that decision. By removing any sort of barrier between the audience and the subject matter, Sweetgrass becomes a documentary in its purest form by simply documenting. And through this structural decision, Sweetgrass becomes one of the most intimate documentaries I’ve ever watched. Sadly, it is not always one of the most interesting or compelling.
Sweetgrass follows the very last summer pasture sheep-herding of a massive herd of sheep in a particular Montana mountain range. I actually don’t remember the names of the two main men in the film (and I’ve been taking fairly extensive notes for my reviews again) because they are so often secondary to the images and quest of the film. In fact, the movies goes nearly 20 minutes before there’s any actual spoken dialogue (unless you count the yipping of one of the herders on the ranch). The sheep (as an entire unit) are just as important characters in this film as are the men that are stuck herding them for their summer pasture. And whether it’s the birthing of a new litter, the shearing of the herd before their pasture, young lambs running for the first time, or the inevitable death of sheep at the hands of natural predators, you get sucked into the world of Sweetgrass on the power of image alone.
However, and this is important, Sweetgrass can be slower and more deliberately paced than Eeyore after he’s smoked some barbiturates (I’ve think I’ve made this joke before). There are countless shots in this film that test the patience of even the most patient movie-goers. The film overflows with gorgeous shots of the Montana landscape and memorable images of the sheep herd, but nine times out of ten, the directors/editors chose to just let the scene last at least twice or even three times as long as it should have. I started trying to keep track of the number of times in the film where they just let the camera linger on a scene for what felt like an eternity when nothing was happening (and the shot didn’t progress the themes of the film any more), and I lost count. I’m not sure if I’ve ever watched a documentary that was this hell-bent on ruining a great premise and some great moments with absurdly awful editing.
For a film that only runs an hour and forty four minutes, Sweetgrass felt like it lasted an eternity. And longtime readers know that I have an endless lover for deliberately-paced, slower films, but the incessant lack of something happening in this film always kept me from fully immersing myself in the world of these ranchhands and sheep in the way that I’m sure the filmmakers intended me to. If you like documentaries, Sweetgrass attempts to do something really interesting, and despite my complaints about the occasional moments of total agony this film put me through, I still enjoyed it and it had enough truly memorable moments to make it worth your while. But if you don’t have any interest in the documentary genre, you should avoid this film like the plague because it will bore the holy hell out of you.
Final Score: B