Sweetgrass: In search of the last surviving cowboys
Friday 29 April 2011
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
sportLiverpool 5 Norwich City 1: Uruguayan striker has now scored 11 league goals against the club
arts + entsOlivier-nominated actor and singer is set to star in Lloyd Webber's musical about the Profumo affair
filmWith more than 70 per cent of early films lost, archivists are scouring the world to preserve the precious examples that remain
sportUnder-10s football coach sacked for telling parents he was 'only interested in winning'
techA piece of new hi-tech kit aims to get us scribbling again
indybestMake getting out of the wrong side of bed on cold winter mornings a thing of the past with our selection of night-time covers
life + styleClarissa Baldwin is the brains behind the slogan 'A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas'
Arts & Ents blogs
The 50 Best Christmas songs: Bells continue to ring for the Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York'
Shia LaBeouf's Nymphomaniac sex scene removed from YouTube
Eminem, Drake and Jay Z among Spotify's most-streamed artists of 2013
Morgan Freeman portrait: The world's most realistic finger painting?
Nymphomaniac trailer shown to children at screening of Disney film Frozen
- 1 North Korea: Kim Jong Un 'sacks powerful uncle and has his aides executed'
- 2 The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading'
- 3 Is this the scariest advert ever? Japanese tyre commercial comes with its own disclaimer and health warning
- 4 A forgotten episode in Russian history leaves links with the Philippines
- 5 ‘Put it in my mouth’: Viewers outraged by apparent reference to oral sex in VIP e-cig advert