Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 has given us so far many different types of documentaries: we’ve had serious historical documents, socially important advocacy films, bonkers weirdo films and joyous musical documentaries – but we’d yet to have my particular favourite type – namely that slow, ponderous, observational, non-committal fly-on-the-wall film that Phillibert and Wiseman are so well known for.
Having seen the trailer for Addicted to Sheep and constantly bumping into the sheep themselves (well, stuffed lookalikes) all over Sheffield, it seemed as if the film was being marketed as some kind of comedic look at isolated tenant farmers, some kind of character comedy with all the characters played either by sheep or by hapless farmers trying to control the little tykes in the blistering cold of the North Pennines. As such I was expecting something entertaining yet slight. What I got instead, however, was certainly entertaining, but was also a powerful documentary about a family’s struggle through the seasons. We see a family that has chosen their lot and fights to make it all that it’s worth. The idyllic landscape is beautiful to look at (we see it in all its glory, from snow covered hills to verdant fields) and comes alive for us as it does them through their daily travails.
And there are travails aplenty. Shot over a period of four years by Magali Pettier, herself from a French farming background, we are enthralled as her camera observes, and follows the Hutchinson family as they go about the business of trying to make a living against, not so much the odds, but the simple realities of trying to be a successful sheep farmer. Tom Hutchinson, a policeman’s son and the center of the film, certainly knows his stuff – the film opens with him tethering a sheep, a Swaledale, and discussing its imperfections as one would discuss the finer points of a prize-winning Persian cat. We’ll get to know his sheep too, really rather intimately.
Originally Pettier had intended to use her background to juxtapose French and British methods of farming, as tenant farming was to her a new and intriguing concept, though as the filming went on, time and budgetary concerns made this impossible and she chose instead to concentrate on the Hutchinson’s efforts – and she must have seen in Tom Hutchinson and his family something both cinematic and humane. It turns out it was a good choice to make, and after cutting her original sixty-odd hours to a slow yet packed ninety minutes, we have a film that is by turns funny, sad, moving and grimy. Really grimy.
Pettier spares us none on the details of working with sheep for a living. The things that Hutchinson and his wife have to do are presented to us in close-up and with a camera that very rarely moves. There is one particularly shocking scene in which we see Hutchinson’s wife barking out orders to the sheep dog whilst arm-deep in a sheep. Uncomfortable but necessary. Necessary too is the amount of work we see the Hutchinsons putting into preventing the tups and yows (there are no “rams” or “ewes” in the Pennines) from meeting an early death (something, he tells us, sheep are hardwired to do) – this is both fascinating and alarming. That they are fulfilled is fantastic and a tribute to the life they live – though they don’t do it alone. We meet various vets and shearers throughout the film and they all seem to have the same sense of achievement tempered by exhaustion.
This is a film as much about family and place as it is sheep, though. While we see Tom working on the farm, and with the shearers and vets, he tells us about the financial aspects of farming, and of the logistics of working somebody else’s farm – in this case the Raby Estate. It is when we follow his three children to school that we learn about the social and familial pros and cons of working the farm. This is a really nice device that adds an extra element of intimacy to the film. The children aren’t spared the work however. We see Tom’s daughter struggling through the cold to close a gate, for instance, or bemoaning the slovenly toilet habits of the cows. Even though, over the course of the four years on the farm Pettier must have become like one of the family, scenes like the one filmed on Christmas morning with the family opening their presents must have been fairly awkward for all involved. The style of the film though ensures that we never feel like we’re intruding.
Despite the comic title for the film, Addicted to Sheep, a title that came from Tom himself in reference to the Swaledales being the most addictive of sheep, there is a calm seriousness about the film that really draws you in. It is beautifully shot and the sound is fantastic (the sounds of the machines and the gates and all of the metal contraptions involved in getting sheep from one place to the next are loud and detailed and superbly recorded) and it wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t go on to win numerous awards…just as Tom does at the end with his Swaledales. It is a bitter-sweet moment in the film, seeing Tom walk away with thirteen trophies for his sheep and then head straight back to the grind of caring for them and the stress of then trying to sell them. We get the impression the slog is all worth it though.
This is a wonderful film then, and it certainly deserves all of the acclaim it is receiving. As Pettier said in the Q&A, the film is receiving many screenings at festivals all over the world and they are in talks with various distribution companies, including possibly even the BBC, which would be awesome because this film definitely deserves some sort of mainstream release. If the reception it has received at Sheffield is anything to go by, this film is going to be very successful indeed. And indeed it should – it reminded me very much of the work of Fred Wiseman, and I can think of no greater compliment.