“Old Partner” and “Sweetgrass”
Film Forum will be premiering two documentaries that share the common theme of the relationship between humans and animals: “Old Partner,” which will open on December 30 and “Sweetgrass” which opens on January 6. While both films have been beautifully photographed (“Old Partner” in particular) they take very different approaches to their subjects. While one method is successful, the other is less so. The contrast between the two approaches illustrates what I like and do not care for about the ways documentaries can present their stories.
“Old Partner” is the better movie by far since it allows the opportunity to get to know its three main subjects: a poor, elderly South Korean farming couple and their ox. The ox is 40 years old and has been with the couple for the past 30 years. The normal life span for an ox is 15 years. The ox is their source of transportation, the tractor that they use to plow their fields and a vital part of their livelihood. The husband, set in his ways, refuses to buy a modern tractor or to use pesticides. He thinks the latter would be harmful to the ox. In fact the husband is more attentive to the ox than to his wife, something she bemoans throughout the film. “We both met the wrong man,” the wife tells the ox, at one point, referring to the life of hard work to which each of them has been subjected. In fact it is the wife’s comments and humor, some of it unintentional, that draw the viewer into this agricultural world in a remote part of South Korea. While “Old Partner” gives a portrait of its subjects and what they want from life, “Sweetgrass” is more observational, and that is where it runs into trouble.
In “Sweetgrass” we are shown many things, but we do not receive the kind of story information and character development necessary to sustain the film’s 101 minute running time. By contrast “Old Partner” plays just fine at 77 minutes, and knows when to end.
“Sweetgrass” concerns modern day cowboys driving thousands of sheep across Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. We do not get to know any of the subjects. What a missed opportunity, especially when one considers that the filmmakers shot for three summers and edited for eight years. The closest “Sweetgrass” comes to showing a compelling character is a sequence in which a cowboy makes a cell phone call to his mother. He complains how miserable he is, how the sheep are not cooperating and how his knee has been hurting him. Over this tirade the film cuts to wide shots of the surrounding mountains making the cowboy and his problems insignificant specs against the grandeur of nature. The sequence plays nicely. It is interesting and revealing.
“Sweetgrass” needed to dig deeper and provide more than a visual tone poem. Let’s get into the characters and how they feel about what they are doing. For example: What it is like being a cowboy in the modern world? How long have these men been at their jobs? How do they see their futures? I’m sure the director could have given us an outsider’s perspective on his experience following these cowboys and shooting some of the film’s sequences. I am sure he will have a ommentary track on the eventual “Sweetgrass” DVDbut the film needs it now. How many shots of sheep and of cowboys making small talk and eating breakfast can we take?
Old Partner, director Lee Chung-ryoul, Schcalo Media Group, 77 minutes
Sweetgrass, director Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Cinema Guild, 101 minutes