Sweetgrass: In search of the last surviving cowboys

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The Independent Culture

The cowboy may be alive and well on our cinema screens, but in the American West they're part of a dying way of life, one that's paid tribute to in a new documentary by the film-makers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash.

Sweetgrass, which was nominated in the best documentary category at this year's Independent Spirit Awards, follows the last modern-day sheep herders to trail their flock hundreds of miles across Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in search of pasture. Known as the sheep drive, this 100-year tradition was kept alive until recently by a sole rancher, on a grazing permit passed down through his family.

The artist and anthropologist Castaing-Taylor, whose previous work includes the award-winning documentary In and Out of Africa and Made in USA, first heard about the sheep herders while living in Colorado.

"I went up there in the spring of 2001," he explains. "I didn't know whether there was a film there or not, but I knew they were the last people to be grazing their sheep up on the mountain; there used to be 70,000 sheep up there each summer and the whole community had been involved over the previous century. Once I got up in the mountains I realised this was an incredible space, totally unlike the rest of civilisation. Here in the west of the US was the end of the cowboy culture, the end of the homesteading history of the last 100 years, which it seemed worthwhile trying to capture before it was too late."

As well as a swan song to a defining period in the history of the American West, Sweetgrass tips its hat to cinema's long-standing love affair with the cowboy. And while technically these may not be true cowboys (they're herding sheep after all), the film-makers were only too aware of the icons they were working with. "I remember when we first arrived in Montana I couldn't believe that these guys hadn't just jumped out of a John Wayne movie," Castaing-Taylor recalls. "There are some shots that are stereotypically 'cowboy'. Sometimes we would invert them; like when one of the herders on top of the mountain loses his temper and cusses out the sheep and then calls his mother on the cell phone. You know, cowboys don't cry, they certainly don't cry to their mother and they don't usually have cell phones! We wanted to play with the imagery and the emotions that go along with cowboys."

'Sweetgrass' is in selected cinemas now