TIFF17 REVIEW: Of Sheep and Men [2017]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 78 minutes | Release Date: 2017 (Switzerland)
Studio: Close Up Films
Director(s): Karim Sayad

“In this country, the big fish eat the small fish”

It’s the cusp of Eid in Algiers, Bab el Oued circa 2016 and the rams are running wild. Well, not wild per se considering each is bought, sold, and always owned. They seem to be a huge staple in this impoverished town as a means for wool, meat, and entertainment. Yes, along with all the usual uses you could think of for the animal (including a sacrifice to Allah) is a prevalent fight circuit where competitors seek out new opponents via Facebook pages. Unless your ram is a champion you’re probably not making much by way of bets, but the events play as a welcome occasion to let off steam nonetheless. Some will travel to watch tournaments while others groom their contenders in the open fields around home.

Karim Sayad‘s feature length debut documentary Of Sheep and Men takes a look at Algeria’s ram ecosystem by following a forty-year old merchant named Meflah Samir and a sixteen-year old kid named Habib Halfaya. The former sells many things including sheep and will drive great distances to get a good deal with which to turn a profit. This is his busy season with the holiday coming up and slaughters increasing ten-fold. And while he doesn’t own any fighters himself, he isn’t averse to checking out a buzzed about tilt or championing its winner with exuberance. Meflah, on the other hand, keeps his ram as a pet in order to groom him into just such a champion. His ‘El Bouq’ poses for videos in search of his first fight.

The film crosscuts from one to the other as Eid approaches: Samir’s stable increasing in numbers thanks to a temporary fenced-in pen and Habib’s anxiety growing to finally get ‘El Bouq’ into a match to prove his worth. One knows his sheep will soon be dying because they are property he holds no attachment towards. The other can’t help but feel like a victory is the only thing that will keep his single ram breathing considering his father won’t want to retain the expense when he could kill it in celebration rather than buying another. So while Samir frequents professional establishments with bona fide fighters in highly publicized bouts, Habib is trolling around town on his phone seeking a chance at greatness in and around the local cemetery.

We hear news reports on the radio, one blatant metaphorical slant towards political commentary coming in the form of a soundbyte that calls the citizens of Algeria “sheep.” Samir is also heard talking about his nation’s history of death and war in a way that positions his brethren as fighters much like these rams. They must always be ready for whatever comes next as anything short of victory means slaughter for them too. It’s a tough and tragic existence holding few reprieves, this current state of peace one that allows them to bask in religious reveling and violent excitement via the crack of horns. And as Samir remembers the friends lost and enemies killed during his military service, Habib laments the possible fate of his warrior ‘El Bouq’.

This type of reading is surely welcome, but I’m not sure its intent goes beyond proximity since Sayad’s film really does prove to be about these two men and their parallel trajectories towards their “Sacrifice Feast.” And it works in this simpler regard with the humanity on display proving authentic, the joyous fun of the fight akin to Americans getting worked up for a Sunday afternoon football game. Alongside this playful atmosphere is also the reality of life beyond one moment of celebration. There’s the growing responsibility within Habib courtesy of the knowledge that his ram will find purpose in life or death as well as the hopes and aspirations of Samir grooming his son to follow in his footsteps as a businessman able to support a family.

It’s shot with a voyeuristic view of documentation, every action an imperative regardless of the camera. We experience the dedication necessary to train a fighter worth mention and wonder if Habib has the means to do so despite his youth and lofty ambitions. Existing in this place isn’t much easier with the animals running about and rambunctious children egging them on when not sparring amongst themselves. It’s therefore unsurprising that their release of choice is to watch these rams charge each other with a deafening skull-to-skull blow. The animals’ hard heads become the main metaphor signifying the tenacious personas of the Algerian people themselves. They may be worn down, but they won’t ever be broken. And when their time inevitably does come, it will carry them towards God.

courtesy of TIFF

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