Eye without a Head

Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor made a documentary called Sweetgrass (2009) which is about some of the last existing sheep herders. The film contains sparse dialogue, and when there is speaking, it’s usually mumbling about what sorts of chores need to get done. Most of the shots are sparse, and consist of the sheep and bleak, endless. The central action is the sheep moving across the Montana mountains. This documentary could have been made in several ways, but the way Barbash and Taylor approached it was delightful and strange and unexpected. If this were a nature-style documentary, I imagine there would be “educational” material that are meant to teach us about what we see on the screen. I imagine a narrator explaining the processes of sheep herding and the behavior of the sheep. The sheep would look like sheep.I imagine it would be unthinkably boring.

What is different about the way Barbash and Taylor made this documentary? In Sweetgrass, the sheep do not look like sheep as we know them. Mundane details suddenly become fascinating. Why is it that the simplest gesture — the monotonous chewing of grass — can become other worldly? I attribute this to the filmmakers’ patience and belief in the world unfolding in front of them. It’s the resolution to stay with a subject for a very long time, even when it feels like nothing is happening, and to forget about the ways in which this subject has been labelled, restricted, defined, or explained. The sheep become entirely new creatures to us, with new life.

Their filmmaking approach has many parallels to several ideas we have discussed over the course of this semester. In Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction, Joan writes “The novelist who pioneered a fiction of consciousness sets herself to convey time without consciousness. To report “this impersonal thing” she has to posit an insubstantial observer, an eye without a head” (42). This is what the filmmakers must do — step outside the human gaze and enter into another state of perception, one that does not discriminate or reference according to human terms as we know them.

In this interview with Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the filmmakers discuss the process of making Sweetgrass. Taylor speak about the introduction scene in which a sheep stares straight at the camera. He describes this as a powerful shot because of its unsettling role reversal. He explains “I think most people are unsettled by the fact that here is a beast that culturally has been defined as stupid or insentient, looking at us. And we, humans, are somehow the object of that stare.” J. von Uexküll comes to mind in this context. Uexküll pushes us to remember that our gaze is not the only one — each body (of any sort) has its own unique perspective that is constantly changing and informed by environment.

Perhaps a nature video would want to explain to its audiences why the sheep is paying attention to the camera, or just how cognizant this animal is capable of being. In Sweetgrass, the lambs simply exist on the screen for us without any agenda. This made me think about how films on the same topic can be completely unrelated. Even if a standard television nature documentary (I don’t mean to disparage nature docs by the way, there are definitely many great ones out there) filmed the same subjects, products would be unrelated in a way. One is informative and sees the world on a grid, according to a striated system of meaning; the other is open, allows for exploration, and renders interpretation irrelevant. To achieve this, one must stay in one place long enough to allow something to unfold without attempting to create.




Silber, Joan. The Art of Time in Fiction. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Deleuze, Gilles, “Spinoza and Us,” in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988)



One Response to “Eye without a Head”

  1. immanentterrain2 Says:

    The observational style employed in “Sweetgrass” is in general highly praised in the field of ethnographic film making (Lucien Taylor’s background is also in ethnographic cinema). The general premise of this approach is that the camera is not meant to intervene but to observe until something unfolds, as you say, in front of it. It is seen as a possibility to actually capture the essence of the events and cultural reality in front of the camera, which has been the goal of ethnographers, both filmmakers and writers. One of the great practitioners of this style is David MacDougall, whose latest film “Gandhi’s Children” is highly engaging 3 hour long insight to the life in the school of orphans and young delinquents in New Delhi. The camera seems never to interfere with the activities and to just observe what is happening in front of it.
    As much as I admire MacDougall’s work, I think there are also some hindrances to the observational style that are sometimes overlooked. For example in “Gandhi’s Chidlren” we get to know the students and their relationship with each other, but we do not get any insight to the relationship that MacDougall himself developed with the characters to get such close look at their lives. While we can assume that this relationship was determining a lot of the content of the film we are not explicitly told anything about it. For me it is clear that even when the film maker is not making himself explicitly present in the film, he is influencing what happens in front of the camera and I was a viewer would like to know something about this process.
    Reading your post, I became very curious if I would feel the same longing for the film makers presence watching “Sweetgrass” (I have only seen the opening sequence) or would I go along with your idea of observing the unfolding without interfering with an attempt to create.

    Piibe Kolka

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: