Sweetgrass

By Scott MacDonald

Not all young filmmakers are young filmmakers. Lucien Castaing-Taylor completed Sweetgrass (2009), the film he made with Ilisa Barbash, after a considerable career as an anthropology student (he studied with Timothy Asch at USC, got his Ph.D. at Berkeley); editor (he was founding editor of Visual Anthropological Review and had edited Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R. 1990-1994 and Transcultural Cinema, a collection of essays by David McDougall); author (he and Barbash had collaborated on Cross Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos for University of California Press); and teacher, first at Berkeley, then at the University of Colorado, and beginning in 2003, at Harvard where he founded the Sensory Ethnography Lab. He had also done some work in film. He and Barbash collaborated on Made in USA (1990), on American sweatshops, and In and Out of Africa (1992), on the transcultural trade in “indigenous” African art; and Castaing-Taylor worked as consultant and cinematographer on Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996).

Nothing in this estimable career, however, could have predicted Sweetgrass and/or the set of audio-visual installation works—Bedding Down, Breakfast, Coom Biddy, Daybreak on the Bedground, Hell Roaring Creek, The High Trail, Into-the-Jug (geworfen), and Turned at the Pass—that Castaing-Taylor completed during 2010-12 (these can also be experienced as theatrical works). They are beautifully filmed depictions of sheepherding in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains of Montana, focusing particularly on the century-old practice of herding sheep into the mountains for summer pasture. This practice was in its final years when Castaing-Taylor was lugging his heavy video camera into the mountains to record the sounds and images of the imbricated lives of the sheep and the cowboys, or what Castaing-Taylor calls “sheeple” (these sheep wouldn’t be what they are without humans breeding them, and humans wouldn’t be what we are had no one bred sheep). This body of work is a major contribution not only to ethnographic documentary, but to the modern tradition of cinematically representing American place that has been developed by independent filmmakers like Larry Gottheim, Peter Hutton, James Benning, and Sharon Lockhart.

Castaing-Taylor’s work in establishing and developing the Sensory Ethnography Lab has also been important; his charisma—a product of his personal passion for filmmaking, his broad knowledge, his integrity—has been an inspiration for younger filmmakers like Véréna Paravel, J. P. Sniadecki (Paravel and Sniadecki collaborated on Foreign Parts [2010]), and Stephanie Spray. In his role as director of the SEL, Castaing-Taylor continues to function as creative producer and as collaborator: as this is written, he and Paravel are editing Leviathan, their film about commercial fishing in the North Atlantic.

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