Toronto International Film Festival
Director Karim Sayad’s feature debut is about so much more than four-legged animals.
Watching Of Sheep and Men, the Qumra-shepherded first feature documentary from Swiss-Algerian filmmaker Karim Sayad, I was reminded of a joke my Algerian family have been telling for years. It’s a jest made at the expense of Algeria’s politicians, and a self-deprecating rib on the country’s never-ending troubles:
Following a long period of fiscal stagnation, a momentous deal has just been made that will inject new life into the Algerian economy. A statesman gives an enthusiastic speech in celebration. “Before today,” he exclaims to the assembled crowd, “Algeria was standing on the edge of a cliff. Now, thankfully, we’ve taken a step forward.”
This bittersweet punch-line is echoed throughout Of Sheep and Men, a deep documentary dive into a nation chiefly characterized by inactivity (economic, political, and social). Through the lens of one particular sport — ram-fighting — Sayad’s film explores the national character and the trials of its people with piercing scrutiny.
With their single camera, director Sayad and cinematographer Patrick Tresch sniff out stirrings amongst the forgotten residents of Bab El-Oued, the working-class neighbourhood of Algiers that also took centre stage in Merzak Allouache’s 1994 drama Bab El-Oued City. Ram-fighting is especially popular here, just as dog- and cock-fighting are popular in other societies, where social mobility is just as rare and animal husbandry still a widely-held occupation.
Of Sheep and Men bases itself around Samir and Habib, two Bab El-Oued residents and keen fans of the sport. Both men typify the country’s internal struggles: there’s 42-year old Samir, a struggling “merchant,” father-of-one, and traumatised veteran of the country’s last civil war, and teenage bus conductor Habib, who mourns a childhood ambition of becoming a veterinarian — a dream doomed by the country’s poor educational record. Set around Eid Al-Adha, an Islamic celebration that involves the ritual slaughter of a ram for food, Of Sheep and Men follows Samir as he grows his herd and Habib as he coaches El-Bouq (“The Horn”), his single prized fighter.
The two men — businessman and trainer — are members of the sport’s huge fanbase, many of whom congregate on Facebook groups to trash talk each other’s rams and arrange tournaments. It’s telling that, like Habib and Samir, most of the spectators and trainers are working-class men. There is, apparently, an emotional outlet in channelling your economically-frustrated masculinity through the natural aggression of the rams.
Like Samir, many of ram-fighting’s avid fans remain just that: fans. Their involvement is limited to keen spectating and making the long journeys across Algeria to attend bouts. These men live vicariously through the tournament competitors, being too financially reliant on their own stock of sheep to risk injuring them or their pockets.
For Samir, the stakes are low, but others have loftier ambitions than a fun day out. For men like Habib, whose ill-fated childhood ambitions are riding on El-Bouq, ram-fighting promises to reverse the economic emasculation they’ve become accustomed to and restore dignity within themselves. Unfortunately for Habib, though, El-Bouq happens to be a ram so sweetly docile that audiences will be able to sense more disappointment in this young man’s imminent future.
Despite the foreseen fate of El-Bouq’s heavyweight career, this ram, like most others in the film, remains well-loved by its owner. When Habib isn’t collecting bus fares, most of his time is dedicated to caring for El-Bouq, whether that be soaping him down in the Mediterranean or tenderly feeding the ram from his own supply of chocolate biscuits. Samir’s herd enjoy similar devotion, too: when he chews up bites of banana for one of his (unnamed) rams, transferring it directly into the sheep’s mouth, we witness a level of maternal love we’d never have expected from this rough-spoken wheeler-dealer.
That the men love their sheep does not negate the problematic pleasure they take from this controversial sport. This is a contradiction most audiences will pick up on. But perhaps it makes more sense if we consider that Samir and Habib’s love stems less from an interest in zoology than it does from knowing the animals’ inevitable fate, come Eid. The rams’ impending death is certainly something the two men are starkly aware of, given that their slaughter will provide Samir with much-needed seasonal income and Habib with his Eid lunch.
So maybe what binds the men to their rams is a sense of affinity; the knowledge that, just as it is for the sheep, resistance is futile when you’re working-class and living in a country that routinely guts the dreams of its hopeful. Sayad gently shepherds audiences towards this conclusion by including a snippet of a political radio broadcast in which Algeria’s people are likened to submissive sheep, their inevitable slaughtering being the unspoken punch line. Both man and beast suffer under Algeria’s culture of fatalism.
Sayad’s quiet, observational style lends itself well to this type of ruminating, though at times the film’s slow pace might languish a little too much to keep audiences engaged. But if your mind does wander while watching Of Sheep and Men, Tresch’s stunning cinematography will likely bring you back. Technical skill coupled with the affectionate eye of the film’s diasporic director ensure Bab El-Oued’s hidden charms are always well-captured. We’re blessed with frequent sea-view shots from atop the neighborhood’s coastal hills, and when first light breaks, Tresch lets us drink in the muted blue haze of dawn. An earlier desert scene in which Samir peruses a sheep market in the dead of night provides us with the film’s most stunning image. Rams cross a road against the glow of electric headlights, making for one giant, many-legged silhouette that is as ethereally beautiful as it is eerie.
Despite its lazer-like focus, Of Sheep and Men somehow manages to articulately convey several broader metaphors about Algeria. That it does so with such eloquence and maturity mitigates against its minor sins, making this feature a remarkable debut from a director who proves he’s one to watch.