In a visually stunning documentary, “Ridin’ for the Brand,” Bozeman filmmaker Stephanie Alton takes us city folks into the sweaty, dusty — yet beautiful — world of the Montana cowboy.
The life of the cowboy, we soon discover, may be quickly going the way of the iceman and lamplighter — occupations that also went extinct.
Articulate, compelling and knowledgeable, the Montana ranchers in the film share how global markets, government policies, slaughterhouse and meat-packing monopolies and urban sprawl are forever changing their livelihoods and landscapes.
“Ridin’ for the Brand,” shows at the Myrna Loy Center today, Saturday, Oct. 12, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 13, at 2 p.m. The events include a reception before the shows and a panel discussion following. Panelists include the filmmaker, ranchers, Western Sustainability Exchange and Montana Historical Society historian Brian Shovers.
As a child in Minnesota, Alton was swept up in the romance of cowboys, she admits. “My mom read me books about the West.”
Later she became a professional photographer and filmmaker in New York City, but the allure of the West still called.
By way of a job in Alaska, she met a Montana wrangler and moved to Big Sky Country.
Initially, Alton set out to film the mythology of the American cowboy and to see if it was still alive.
But, the story grew much bigger.
In fact, it took her a decade to complete the filming and production. The film focuses on three old-time Montana ranching families who originally came to the Big Timber area over a century ago during the early Texas cattle drives.
She follows a full year cycle in the ranchers’ lives, from lambing and calving, to branding time, then riding with them as they move their stock to wildland summer grazing allotments, the fall roundup and shipping the animals to market.
Along the way, you’ll meet colorful, independent characters like 85-year-old bachelor rancher Johnny Hoiland, the Allestad family and Duane Mothershead.
As they tell their stories, Alton intersperses powerful historic film footage of old-time cattle drives, rodeos and haying with horse teams.
But you also feel the energy and excitement when neighbors gather today to help with branding and then celebrate afterwards into the night and wee hours of the morning.
“I wanted them to see what a rancher goes through — about raising beef and what all goes into it,” Alton says.
Some of the most touching footage is when a wildfire forces the Allestad family to bring its sheep out of the backcountry on a new route — through the center of Gardiner, much to the delight of the town.
“It was a great parade,” recounts rancher Elaine Allestad of the flock of 3,000 ewes and lambs they herded through the center of town. “The community was very excited.
“It was a great neighborly thing to do,” she says of how the community later pitched in to help haul the sheep back to the ranch in trucks and trailers.
Alton’s film captures not only the forces of nature, but also those of the marketplace.
“I was on a ranch when mad cow disease broke,” she recalls. It was just one of several food safety incidents that changed many consumers’ buying habits. More consumers now want to know where their food comes from.
“People who move here don’t know anything about livestock,” Alton adds. The film “is a good way to find out about who produces your food and who’s your neighbor.”
Ranchers give the film a thumbs-up.
“I thought she did a really good job,” says Elaine Allestad. “She must have an eye for catching characters. I know everyone she filmed. She just did a good job of getting a variety.”
“I was actually quite taken with it,” says Scott Hibbard, a co-owner of Sieben Livestock Company, a local cattle and sheep operation. “I really liked her use of the camera and use of historic footage, which she uses to help put modern day ranching in historic perspective.
“The perspective I bring is someone who has grown up in it,” he says of his role in the film. He also operates his own ranch management business and still helps out on the family operation with some cattle work.
“Experienced ranch labor is in short supply,” he says of one of the biggest impacts on today’s ranching. When he was a kid, the bunkhouse was full of guys who grew up on farms. “They were good workers, they had a good work ethic, they were conscientious.”
These are the cowboys who were “ridin’ for the brand.”
Today, fewer young people want to live on a ranch, he says. Although the pay is competitive, the hours are long and the work is in all kinds of weather.
The film “shows a very rich historic part of Montana,” Hibbard says, “a part of Montana most urbanites don’t see — especially new people. It’s informative to people not versed in ranching and what’s passing right now. It gives a good flavor of ranching in Montana.”
As screenwriter William Hjortsberg aptly writes, “Looking beyond the cowboy myth, Alton’s film captures the slog and grind of ranch work, documenting a way of life on the brink of extinction.”
Alton, who raised $20,000 on Kickstarter to finance the film, hopes it opens people’s eyes to how this rich heritage is threatened and they will support ranchers and the preservation of the land.
“‘Ridin’ for the Brand” is so much more than a story about ranches of the West,” she says. “It is a story of the dedication and steadfastness of the people of this land and their ranches.”