Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass ★★★★

For a couple years after I moved to Atlanta I sometimes worked as a camera assistant for a corporate video company. A lot of their clients were agriculture-related, and for one series of videos we traveled to a handful of farms across the U.S.: I visited peanut farms in south Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia, and worked on a tractor ad in rural Oregon. My primary job was to sit in the backseat of a car as we drove between locations, pull out gear and get it working when we landed, and then carry it through the fields until the director of photography needed it. We would follow the farmers as they broke down the basic routine of their days, what each machine's purpose was, how the crop rotation worked, and other minutiae of the process. Occasionally we would stop for a quick interview, or the director of photography would shoot beauty shots of the equipment or the workers, almost all in slow motion, often low-angle or in extreme close-up, the sun hanging in the background or just off-camera to create flares in the lens.

I would never claim the three to five days I spent in each place made me an expert on farming, or on the lifestyle of the people who do it, but one thing that stuck out to me on those shoots was the gulf between what we were shooting and the reality of the place. In the camera farming was a hazy, impressionistic process, an hour of a roaring combine criss-crossing a field reduced to three seconds of a silhouetted mechanical marvel releasing a plume of dust into the burnt Oklahoma air, framed by the cloud-dotted dome of the sky. Ten shots like that were then cut into a montage set to farmers talking about how, for example, their great-great-great-grandfather had settled the land they still tend today but technology enabled them to farm twice the crop their ancestors had and, man, wasn't that great? It was a positively romantic portrayal of the modern farm in the American-exceptionalism mold. In reality, though, the days were often brutally hot, we were constantly reapplying bug spray because every hour a new cloud of gnats would emerge from the ether to assault us, and the labor itself was wildly repetitive, as the workers ran different pieces of equipment through multiple carbon copy patches of land day in, day out. The beauty of the locales was undeniable (in Oregon mountain ranges jutted up into the horizon on all sides of us, the farm a basin surrounded by rocky peaks; in Virginia thick patches of trees blooming with white flowers hung lazily over the edges of the fields and crowded the roads as we drove through softly rolling, sunlight-yellow hills), but an hour or two into the day I didn't really care; the beauty around me was abstract, while the repetitive nature of the labor, both the farm's and my own, was all too real.

If I know very little about peanut farming, then I know nothing about sheep herding, but no film I've seen has more accurately captured the gap between the realities of rural labor and the majesty of its' setting better than Sweetgrass. In theory it resembles a work of slow-cinema, shots extended far past their expiration date with only the slimmest of narrative frameworks giving them meaning, yet Sweetgrass is only interminably contemplative, as it undercuts itself through its' booming soundscape and the grimy reality of its subject. The film opens with several shots of sheep serenely huddled together in the winter, stray bleats barely audible in the whipping winter wind, then smashes the illusion of peace with the roar of a shearing machine, sheep yanked out of a pen by their legs to get their dirty coats unceremoniously shaved off. Sweetgrass often foregrounds the repetitive nature of farm labor over traditional artistic aims: there's the callous way the farmhands preside over sheep births, tossing the newborn lambs into a garbage can lid so they can lift them all at once. There's the drawn out moment in which a woman drags a newborn lamb across the floor of a dimly lit barn, stopping occasionally so as not to freak out the mama sheep following them. There's the agonizing crawl of progress during the pasture through the mountains which makes up the film's longest arc, as sheep get stuck and have to be corralled, cowboys radio one another through cramped forest passages, teepees and cooking stoves are put up then taken down again. There's the nighttime interludes where the cowboys shoot at opportunistic bears, the already grainy video footage fraying in the pitch black night as blasts of rifle fire echo through the air.

Yet Sweetgrass is also an ode to the cowboys' lifestyle and the Montana mountains they guide the sheep through. As they get deeper and deeper into the mountains, the film starts to cut away more and more to B-roll of the vistas around them, the natural wonders they're too busy corralling sheep to notice. One scene in particular encapsulates the tension at the heart of Sweetgrass: after the sheep scatter across a craggy hillside, one of the cowboys tries to regroup them through sheer strength of will, screaming and riding back and forth in a fit of rage. He gets angrier and angrier as he does so, his curse-laden howls dominating the soundtrack. The entire scene is witnessed in a wide shot from above that starts just wide enough to capture the hundreds of separated sheep then zooms out, revealing the white mountain peaks tall above the scene, the shadows of passing clouds mottling the sunlight. It's a gorgeous view, yet the cowboy is so consumed by his anger he doesn't notice, and in the low-resolution camera the sheep drama becomes indistinguishable from the landscape around it, barely legible dots on the face of the eternal. "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate um," the cowboy later complains, "[but] it's getting to the point I hate um."

Sweetgrass isn't a perfect film. While its deliberate tempering of its romantic tendencies serves useful thematic ends, it occasionally causes cracks to form in its hypnotic rhythm. However, it still has a lasting power: at the film's end it's revealed that the sheep drive we witnessed was actually the last before the company that organized it shut down, reconfiguring the film into an elegy for a lost way of life. I was reminded how, as I hauled camera equipment around dusty peanut farms in 2017-18, I noticed how few workers were actually necessary to maintain the crop: most of the day-to-day labor had become automated, down to tasks as simple as moving sprinklers back and forth or checking the pH level of soil. Both could be done on the iPad of a nearby foreman without that person ever getting out of their car, and miles of peanut fields were often maintained by a single family up until the harvest. Sweetgrass, placed as it is on the crux of that change, is a quietly essential document of the path of rural labor in the 21st century, a film that silently criticizes the muddy, soul-flattening crush of these men's lives while also mourning its end, the brief glimpses of beauty afforded them swallowed up by the hollow automation that would follow.