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Tuesday, July 5 at 10 p.m. – POV: Sweetgrass

(Rochester, NY) POV: Sweetgrass, a stunning, poetic elegy to a vanishing American West, premieres on WXXI-TVHD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11) on Tuesday, July 5 at 10 p.m. The documentary offers an unprecedented record of a cowboy way of life at the moment of its disappearance, and a magnificently filmed portrait of a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans are on intimate terms — and sometimes violently at odds.

Sweetgrass may well be the last real Western. Simply put, Lawrence Allestad and family were among the last of the traditional sheepherders of the American West. Under a public grazing permit that had been handed down in his Norwegian-American family for generations, Allestad was the final rancher to drive his herds into Montana’s rugged Absaroka-Beartooth range north of Yellowstone to fatten on sweet summer grass. The family members and their hired hands conducted the drives much as their pioneer forebears had — on horseback, with dogs for herding and guarding, and armed with rifles to frighten away bears and wolves. Over the years, better gear — walkie-talkies, four-wheelers and cell phones — took some of the edges off a hard life, but still the work remained exhausting and dangerous for both men and animals.

By 2001, Allestad realized not only was he the last old-time sheep rancher, but he was also about to make his last old-time sheep drive. He proposed that “someone ought to make a film about it.” Luckily for anyone interested in the American West or traditional ways of life — or the sheer beauty of mountain wilderness — two adventurous filmmaker-anthropologists, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, decided to take Allestad up on his suggestion.

The filming proved almost as punishing for the married filmmakers as the drive was for the hired hands — grizzled veteran John Ahern and the younger Pat Connolly, who drove 3,000 sheep on the highest and hardest part of the drive. While Barbash filmed in Big Timber, Montana, where the Allestad spread is located, Castaing-Taylor, riding and hiking with camera gear in tow, followed the men and animals into the mountains, where he was charged by grizzly bears — and he came down 20 pounds lighter and in need of double foot surgery. Without narration, Sweetgrass lets the camera, often at sheep-level, reveal the drama of the formerly yearly endeavor.

“We began work on this film in the spring of 2001,” says Castaing-Taylor. “Living at the time in Boulder, Colorado, we heard about a family of sheepherders in Montana who were among the last to trail their band of sheep long distances — about 150 miles each year, all of it on hoof — up the mountains for summer pasture. I visited them during lambing — when the sheep are born — and was so taken with the magnitude of their life that we ended up working with them, their friends and their hired hands intensely over the following years.

“Spending the summers high in the Rocky Mountains, among the herders, the sheep and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days,” he says.

“We ended up with 200 hours of footage, the material for several films,” says Barbash, “but we decided the most compelling story was the one we’d been interested in from the first, the sheep drive itself — as ritual, as history, as challenge. We went back to film lambing, shearing and the following year’s sheep drive in 2002, and the one after that in 2003. Most of the footage, however, is from that first summer. While the sheepherders’ journey is tremendously hard, it is undertaken not just for the literal goal of reaching (sweet) grass, but also to carry on tradition against all sorts of odds.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sweetgrass
Photo Caption: A scene from Sweetgrass

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