SWEETGRASS – non-fiction cinema & THE Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab


Robert Koehler’s Essay on the Film SWEETGRASS (2009) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbs


„recordists,“ instead of „directors.“

The intent of the word is precisely meant, and points to the film’s essence.





„This context, I think, is where it’s best to understand the key importance of Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Ilisa Barbash’s masterpiece of nonfiction, Sweetgrass. Another layer should be added to this context. The anthropological cinema of Jean Rouch, as well as the pure fieldwork film used in the growing genre of anthropological filmmaking, has a way of joining up with Bazinian notions initially formed around narrative, and especially that other Jean R., Renoir. Claude Lйvi-Strauss‘ cultural anthropology, Marxist and firmly anti-colonialist, was in many ways made visible by Rouch’s work, particularly that made in Africa. The central idea, made manifest in Sweetgrass to an extent that’s rarely been equaled, is that the subject is recorded and observed almost purely through image and sound (and a minimum if not absence of supporting text), but with considerable research and understanding of the cultural and political realities informing and affecting that subject. In spite of the continual feuding that embroils much of academic anthropology regarding the scientific virtues of field recording and its contribution to analytical interpretation-a battlefield that amuses Castaing-Taylor and Barbash no end-the cinematic value of the work is undoubted, and its possibly unintended connections to an Antonioni-to-Alonso cinema are endlessly fascinating. (As Castaing-Taylor noted to critic Jay Kuehner in his extensive interview in Cinema Scope magazine, „the virtues of the long take crept up on us and changed the way Sweetgrass was edited.“) For the makers of Sweetgrass-or, specifically, Castaing-Taylor, who did the camerawork on the footage that found its way into the final film-call themselves „recordists,“ not „directors.“ Semantics? No. The intent of the word is precisely meant, and points to the film’s essence. Castaing-Taylor, on camera, and Barbash, at the editing table, are practicing their anthropological discipline through cinema as removed observers of the subject at hand: A family-run sheepherding operation based in Big Timber, Sweet Grass County, Montana, using leased public lands to run sheep into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains until 2003. Barbash is a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, while Castaing-Taylor is a professor of Visual and Environmental Studies and Anthropology at Harvard, where he heads the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. They have collaborated on the previous nonfiction films, „Made in USA“ (about Los Angeles sweatshops) and „In and Out of Africa“ (on the international market in African art), and co-authored the 2008 book, „The Cinema of Robert Gardner,“ as well as texts on transcultural cinema. But their adventure that led to the making of Sweetgrass started far from their current Harvard home and the academic grove; indeed, their subject’s sheer remoteness from civilization while being firmly American gives the film its extraordinary qualities of timelessness and rigorous attention to the here and now.

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