Film Review: Sweetgrass

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Forum

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BERLIN -- There's plenty of time for rumination during "Sweetgrass," an intriguing but overly demanding portrait of rural Montana that concentrates on sheep and their herders. The sole segment of an ambitious nine-film academic project to venture beyond art galleries and installation spaces, "Sweetgrass" will find welcoming pastures at specialized documentary festivals, but wider appeal would require another edit or two.

Co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash spent several years among the people of Sweet Grass County, Mont., using video cameras to record intimately the everyday details of their activities. Dividing editing and camerawork duties, they've crafted an unadorned, empathetic and patient study of rural lives -- human and ovine -- that's also a gruff elegy for a dying industry.

In a touch that, like several aspects of the enterprise, recalls Yu Guangyi's superior recent Chinese variant "Timber Gang," end titles inform us that we've been watching the last time this area's sheep were transported from low to high ground for summer grazing. It's an arduous activity that drives one herder beyond the breaking point: Frustrations are vented in an extended, entertainingly expletive-studded rant, the vehemence of which would make Christian Bale blush.

Several other sequences engage, illuminate or startle, but these are, in the end, too few and far between. And the evident practical advantages of standard-issue digital video -- on what must have been a notably tough shoot -- are outweighed by the resulting, relatively undistinguished visuals. Such Arcadian subject matter and sublime terrain cry out for high-definition DV or, ideally, 35mm film.

The directors succeed all too well in evoking the sedentary, unhurried pace of country life: Many shots and sequences drag unproductively and repetitively, on and on. This means that, for some drowsy viewers, watching "Sweetgrass" ironically might prove an effective substitute for counting sheep.
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