In 2003, a last herd of sheep made its way through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains, taking over three months and covering some 150 miles. That journey is documented in Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s superb documentary, premiering on PBS on 5 July. For long stretches, the film observes sheep in motion—trekking along dirt roads, up and down mountainsides, through densely green forest trails or snowy fields. As a parable, the story of sheep seems unsubtle: they are herded, they are unthinking, they go along. As poetry, the film is stunning. With no narration and remarkably little conversation among the herders, it reveals the loneliness and day-to-day difficulty of living among sheep, as human labor and desire are reflected by their surroundings—their bleating charges and also the land they all traverse. “I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate ‘em,” says one man. You need faith, persistence, and extraordinary patience to herd sheep, whether the job is handed down in families (as it is so often), a refuge or an adventure. The herders spend most of their days apart, that is, on opposite sides of their herd, atop their horses, directing dogs and smiling occasionally at each other. The film is neither nostalgic nor romantic, but instead shows how this hard life has effects, good and bad, that it presses workers to their own edges and also helps them to discover themselves as well as the world around them.
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