Have you ever looked a sheep in the eye before? Has it ever looked back?
In “Sweetgrass,” one of the more peculiar documentaries I’ve ever seen, there’s one sheep that does suddenly notice our presence, and we become all the more aware of how it lives.
Sheep have this dumb, blank, clueless look on their faces, strikingly different from any childlike impression of them. Their “baaa” noise is a repulsive belching noise and their wool hides are stained an ugly brown with the exception of the painted on tracking number in green.
We see them making gigantic pilgrimages, traveling in a sea of white or a barrage of hooves past the Radioshack in town or down a Montana mountain that looks like it belongs in “Aguirre, The Wrath of God.”
They’re aggressively manhandled as ranchers sheer their fur, drag and whip around their newborns and force feed them milk through a syringe.
What are they doing? What’s their purpose? You look at them and then back at the herders taking them out to pasture, and you wonder if the human actions have any more meaning than these dumb animals.
Few of their words are put into any sort of context. Because these people are never identified or never asked any questions, all that we hear from them is just noise. One herder swears profusely at his sheep, his dog, his horse and this mountain, and he doesn’t get anywhere. “Fuckin’ dog. You’re as worthless as tits on a fuckin’ bull hog.”
One guy sits and struggles to put four short pipes together to make one longer one. What’s it for? Why does this task look so aimless?
These are the sights and sounds of “Sweetgrass.” It doesn’t seem to have a point, and it is very much a cinephile’s film, one that inspires meandering thought through its visuals, its sound and not much else.
And yet this is not some cinema verite movie. It gets in the face of these sheep, putting the camera in places that no human perspective can achieve. One long take is perched on the back of a truck pulling a wheel of grass and sod, laying it out randomly so the animals can feed. Another seems to be attached to the head of a sheep, in the midst of thousands and nowhere in particular to go.
Like the sheep at the start, you sit and watch with a blank stare, and it looks back.