I have a few minor preferences when it comes to documentaries. Even if I'm critical, I tend to love a great majority of them. But if there is one thing I highly favor with non-fiction cinema, it's the absence of narration -- unless it is of a more poetic nature like Werner Herzog's voice-overs or the eerie sci-fi-like Into Eternity. I love docs that just observe their subject without exposition, and maybe minus interviews as well. One of the best films of this year, Last Train Home, fits this criteria. So does the upcoming Boxing Gym, as is the norm for Frederick Wiseman's works. Now I add to my recent favorites Sweetgrass, which hit DVD this week.
For a companion piece, I went all the way back to the 1925 silent documentary Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, to which Sweetgrass co-director and producer Ilisa Barbash says her film is a tribute. Though it's easy to see the influence, the two films couldn't be more aesthetically different, which is interesting because its the newer film that feels less talky and in some ways more of an antique.
Working over much of the past decade, with more than 200 hours of footage to show for it, Barbash and husband/co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor follow in this film (one of nine, they say, and the only one to be theatrically released) the last true American "cowboys" -- really shepherds -- in their annual 150-mile trek through the Big Sky country of Montana. I'd say it's a last glimpse at a dying breed of man, but sadly what you see in the film is already dead. Sweetgrass documented the last of the herding trips through the Absaroka‐Beartooth mountains in the early 2000s, making it already more of a history than a profile.
The doc changes its tone and focus a few times through its 101 minutes, but not in a way that makes it inconsistent. Initially I found the film to be quite relaxing. Obviously watching a bunch of sheep in their daily business reminds us of the idea of counting sheep to fall asleep. But there's also a great deal of hypnotic shots and sequences while the men and animals are still back at the ranch, before the summer comes, that reminded me much of the serene and mechanical narration-less doc Our Daily Bread (one of my faves of the decade). Sweetgrass, though not about turning the sheep into food, also has a few early scenes that will be tough for vegetarians and other animal lovers to watch.
Later there's more audible dialogue from the herders, much of which is quite profane, especially in one memorable sequence that counters any prior thoughts you might have had that what you're watching is the calm and good life. As the man complains about the job over a phone call to his mother, including each and every foul word you can think of, the film contrasts what the viewer hears with gorgeous panorama shots of the mountains. It's a powerfully ironic moment in which you feel both the beauty and the roughness of the landscape as well as the job.
Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, best known for making King Kong a few years later, with help from journalist Marguerite Harrison, Grass takes us to another part of the world for its document of a nomadic herding migration: the Middle East. Released three years after the famous Nanook of the North, it's a similar ethnographic documentary (and something of a wannabe), though it's likely a little less staged and manipulated. Still, it's very much shaped by its screenplay, the story told through intertitles, and therefore doesn't come across as genuine and natural as Sweetgrass does. Even the animals seem more scripted -- one amusing title features an abundance of "baaas" written out and superimposed over each other to give the impression of cluttered noise.
There is nevertheless a real historical and anthropological importance to Grass, even if it's as much in a film-history sense as a non-fiction-documentation sense. It's primarily a spectacle like many other films, fiction or non, of the era. However, the doc's centerpiece, a famous and still remarkable sequence involving a treacherous river crossing, is an astonishing thing to watch, and you have to believe it was almost entirely real. But even it weren't, it's something you really must see.
Both Sweetgrass and Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life are available on DVD and Netflix Instant.