Friday, April 20, 2012

Chicks And Ducks And Geese Better Scurry

As I headed into Grocery Outlet, I passed by a display of lawn furniture under a makeshift display pavilion. A child was gently tapping one of the bells that hung just above his head, making me wonder if the sheep had followed me all the way to Berkeley.

I suppose an explanation is in order.

In recent years I've fallen in love with a rather bucolic type of documentary devoted to farm animals. From the sheep in Brokeback MountainSweetgrass, and Hell Roaring Creek to the cows and goats in Way of Nature and Le Quattro Volte, there is something incredibly peaceful about watching footage that shows herds of animals moving about in search of grass.

Whether one prefers to watch sheep being sheared or luxuriate in the kind of armchair adventure that keeps the viewer a healthy distance from fresh cow pies as they are being made (so that one never has to swat away the flies or be downwind from the stench), I love these films. Some are accompanied by musical scores; others depend on the cacophony created by crowing roosters, barking dogs, braying donkeys, and the bells suspended from the necks of goats, sheep, and cows.

This year's San Francisco International Film Festival features two such documentaries. One is devoted to a pair of professional shepherds who love their work and are proud to carry on a centuries-old tradition. The other focuses on two elderly Swedish sisters who can barely manage to take care of their cows.

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Written and directed by theatre composer and professional trombonistManuel von StürlerWinter Nomads introduced me to a word I'd never heard: transhumance. How the filmmaker became interested in transhumance is a story in and of itself. As Stürler explains:
"After a long trip with my family to the other side of the planet, I heard that an impressive flock of sheep had passed in front of my house (which is located on the outskirts of an urban area). So the following winter I was on the lookout for them. I eventually found them near a small town nearby. It was an incredible encounter: first of all with the extraordinary spectacle of the passing sheep, but particularly with the shepherds, Pascal and Carole. This transhumance adventure captivated me. It was an eye-opener as regards the transformation of the countryside and the "Los-Angelisation" of the Swiss countryside. The idea of making a film was immediately obvious. 
The biblical symbol of the shepherd, just like the return to nature and the Epinal image (traditionalist depiction) that transhumance represents hold an astoundingly powerful fascination. Wherever they go, shepherds attract interest and sympathy. In fact, they are so much in demand that they sometimes hide in a clearing so as not to be disturbed! Shepherds and their flocks are, however, not always welcome. Some farmers, fearing for their crops, are on the defensive for all sorts of reasons and prohibit access to their land.
Transhumance is regulated by the authorities who assign certain areas to the owners of the flocks, but the farmers are under no obligation to accept the sheep on their land. I wanted to highlight the beautiful, natural sounds of the transhumance and was considering not using any music at all. In the end, I did feel the need to include some music to punctuate the film with different phrasings, to mark temporality and to take a little distance."
Carole leads the sheep through the snow over a bridge

Winter Nomads follows two shepherds who, in November 2010, embark on a four-month transhumance across 600 km near the Swiss-French Alpine border. They are accompanied by three donkeys, four dogs, 800 sheep and occasionally receive visits from the owner of their flock.

Pascal Eguisier was born in Corrèze, France and subsequently settled in Switzerland, where he has worked as a winter transhumance shepherd for 33 years. At 54, he admits to being difficult to work with, but takes great pride in his work. In Pascal's words:
"I've chosen freedom, I travel light, I own nothing, and I have no banker breathing down my neck. My greatest wealth is living in nature, waking up in the morning, and beholding the sky and the Moon. It's a magnificent palace not even kings are entitled to. A shepherd's work can be compared to the connection linking a monk to his monastery. To live with a herd of sheep round the clock for four months, the term priesthood is surely more appropriate! People's curiosity about transhumance sometimes gives us the impression of being museum pieces. This attraction is understandable, though. Seeing a herd of sheep revives the connection with the Earth in some and evokes a biblical theme to others. No doubt, this vision reminds them of their aspiration for a more authentic and meaningful life. But can they renounce material security and superficiality?"
Carole and Pascal take a break while a donkey stands by

At 28, Carole Noblanc is the only woman in Switzerland -- and perhaps all of Europe -- to experience the winter transhumance. A native of Brittany, France, she grew up in Quimper (where she worked as a professional dietitian). Throughout the film she is partial to a dark goat named Irmale (one of her bellwethers) and a puppy named Léon (who looks like he might be part Portuguese water dog).
"I love being surrounded by nature with the sheep, the donkeys and the dogs, and waking up every morning in the middle of the forest in a different landscape each time. In the forest, clothes get rough treatment (you have to wear wool around the fireside because the cinders make holes in synthetic clothes). We also wear capes, which protect us from the cold very well. But after spending all day in the cold, I sometimes just want a bit of peace. I find it difficult to socialize around the fireplace with people who came to share our meal and then go off to sleep in a warm bed."
Carole and Pascal watch the herd

A former butcher, the flock's owner (Jean Paul Peguiron) has spent the past few years raising and selling lambs. At the end of the summer, he buys up animals in the Swiss mountain regions and builds up a large flock (which will get fatter over the course of the transhumance). His business contacts allow him to sell sheep to a variety of retail outlets along the flock's way.

Peguiron stresses that only lambs destined for slaughter participate in the four-month-long transhumance (he is not allowed to take pregnant ewes along with the flock). He is the first to admit that cell phones have made it much easier to interact with his shepherds and customers during a transhumance.

The few moments spent indoors during Winter Nomads occur when Pascal and Carole have a chance to visit with farmers they've gotten to know over the years. What makes this film so appealing, however, is not just the animals or seeing how shepherds guide their flock.

Although the animals and weather dictate the drama, Stürler has a fantastic eye for framing some of his shots. In addition to helping viewers understand the actual work of a professional shepherd, he has provided audiences with a luxurious adventure through the French countryside. Here's the trailer:

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If Winter Nomads takes a professional approach to tending livestock, Women With Cows is devoted to two Swedish sisters who have tended to cows for their entire lives.
  • Britt loves her cows and has never married.  Now 77 years old and suffering from severe kyphosis, she walks with her head at knee level, her arms swinging by her side. Although she often falls asleep in the barn (and frequently misses the pail when milking the cows), Britt can't imagine life without her best friends. Often, when Inger stops by with some dinner for Britt, the older sister will give her leftovers to her cats.
  • Inger has lost all patience with her older sister. Not only does the 75-year-old Inger resent having to milk the cows by hand when Britt is ill, she thinks Britt's home is a filthy mess.
Britt resting in the barn

Director Peter Gerdehag has done a nice job of combining home movies (which show the sisters when they were young and healthy) with current footage that shows Britt struggling to walk around her farm. During the film, age starts to take its toll on the two women.
  • Inger blacks out while driving.
  • Britt's leg infection lands her in a hospital.

Women With Cows is not a feel-good film, but rather a classic lesson in the need to let go. As much as Inger wants to sell off the cows, Britt can't bear to part with her beloved animals. The scene which is a real eye-opener involves watching how a bull that has been sold is put down and, after being loaded into a garbage truck-like conveyance, is hauled off to a meat processing plant.

Despite the beauty of rural Sweden throughout the year, Women With Cows shows why farming is best left in the hands of healthy people rather than delusional sentimentalists. Here's the trailer:

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