One of the surprise hits of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it had its world premiere, Addicted to Sheep is that increasingly rare specimen: an observational documentary, largely made in the cinéma vérité tradition. On the big screen it’s a treat for the senses, immersing you in the lives of a family of tenant sheep farmers in the north of England. Currently screening in UK cinemas, it’s been getting rave critical reviews. I recently did a post-screening Q&A with the director Magali Pettier at Bertha Dochouse. Here’s a brief excerpt:
There were quite a few scenes in there when they clearly could use another hand. Did they ever say, ‘Magali, could you help me with this’?
Yes, and I do feel it sometimes, especially with the scene with the gate [where the farmer struggles at some length to fix a gate]. But my role as a filmmaker is to observe and see what is happening. If he had fallen and broken his leg of course I would go and help. But you shouldn’t intervene, and my aim is to film what is happening, and if I hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t be anyone to help him. He wasn’t in any danger. I think sometimes, having been brought up on a farm, I knew when to be there to help, and when to be quiet, because there are some very tense moments and you have to make yourself very small.
They certainly didn’t expect you to be spending Christmas Day with them!
They certainly didn’t. It didn’t take too much convincing and they said yes you can come while we open presents but after that we’d like to have the day to ourselves. They did make me feel like part of the family, and I stayed in the house with them when I was filming them.
It’s quite impressive, and in some ways these days slightly old-fashioned to have such an observational style. You had some interviews on the go, to give context to their lives. Otherwise it’s very minimalist. Have you been surprised how well the film has been received by audiences?
So far we’ve had a really good response. People appreciate they are not being told something all the time. It is filmed in a way that allows them to experience that environment and they feel like they’ve been there and that they know the family. For me that was the aim. I wanted the film to touch on social issues but I didn’t want it to be about social issues. I wanted people to think about it, and open up a conversation, but I wasn’t going to make a campaigning film. I wanted it to be about real people.
How do you know, in a film like this, that it’s time to stop filming?
I spent about 45 days over 18 months there. I could tell they wanted to get on with their lives! And going to those places and having me always behind or in front of them, or sometimes with a radio mic on them, I could really feel it when there was stress on the farm, that it was time. I had asked enough of the family, and we had to make the film with what we had.
And the family is happy with the film?
They liked it. But they said at first that they were not sure what the community would think. But we had a preview in the community with feedback forms and everyone agreed it was a good representation of the area. So that gave them confidence that it was okay – the community liked it so it was fine.
Check out this link for upcoming screenings of Addicted to Sheep.