Of Sheep and Men
(Switzerland/France/Qatar, 78 min.)
Dir. Karim Sayad
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
We all know that humans and sheep are different beasts but Sayad’s doc suggests that there are similarities. When expected to follow the shepherd and keep in line with the herd, sheep might stomp their feet, huff, puff, and blow straight through the pen—but what about men and women? The Arab Spring movement is one of the most powerful contemporary examples in which ordinary people refused to be complacent and took to the streets to spark a revolution. The waves of protests rippled around the globe and separated the goats from the sheep, so to speak, as people reclaimed their agency.
Algeria is one nation among many experiencing renewal with its newly sheared coat. Director Karim Sayad explores contemporary Algiers in the wake of Arab Spring with a fresh and novel perspective in Of Sheep and Men. The film focuses on two men—16-year-old Habib and 42-year-old Samir—who ready their sheep for the upcoming Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha). The preparations for the feast are a mostly transactional affair for Samir, who’s seen this celebration come and go many times, but the event holds a special concern for Habib, a bus driver with dreams of becoming a veterinarian, who prepares his prized ram El Bouq for the annual sheep fights that precede the ritual slaughter. The more the young man trains and readies his ram, however, the more likely it seems that El Bouq will find himself atop a spit, rather than taking home a championship plate.
Sayad respects the lives of all creatures in Of Sheep and Men. Human and non-human animals alike are the subjects of an inquisitive sociological shoot in this beautifully observant film that draws sharp-eyed parallels between man and beast, like the shearing of the sheep’s wool and the razing of Habib’s stubble, without making either mammal the butt of a joke. The cinematography by Patrick Tresch is absolutely gorgeous as the cameras explore every nook and cranny of the Bab el Oued neighbourhood in which the subjects reside. Even better are sights the lenses take in with each tuft, horn, and eyeball of the woolly creatures who await the feast. Of Sheep and Men does for rams what Kedi does for cats since the camera hovers around the fauna to capture the vitality and personality of each subject.
Sheep, as with Kedi, uses the animals that populate the city for a wider sociological survey of the residents. The upcoming celebrations and sheep fights become the subject of ample debates and talking points to observe ebbs of the cultural tide, turns in secularism and fundamentalism, and fluctuations in conservatism that Algerians negotiate post-Arab Spring. As El Bouq and the young buck who trains him ready for the big fight, Of Sheep and Men leaves one rooting for both beasts.
TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more information on this year’s festival.‘