Reflexive Piece

My film seeks to portray an insight into the realities of sheep farming and the importance of the caring relationship between a farmer and his sheep in terms of new life, and death. Animals have a lengthy relation to the human world of agriculture, and considering the performative potential of animals (Smaill, 2014) in relation to their human counterparts can allow us to consider meaningful relationships that extend further than anthropocentric rhetoric can. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman wrote: "They [animals] do not just stand for something, as a word stands for a thing or a rhetorical trope figures something else; they do something. Even in cases of complete ventriloquism, in which thinking with animals is reduced to a blatant projection of human thoughts, feelings and fantasies, there is some added value in the fact that the blank screen for these projections is an animal." (2005:12)

What is clear from watching Kevin, my dad, with the sheep, is that his job is an emotionally invested one. When Mike, my lecturer, suggested my film should directly explore the personalities of the sheep themselves, I thought ‘how could I possibly do that? I want to make the film about my dad and his job… not about the sheep’. But as I continued working on the project it became clear to me that it is about the sheep. Dad would not have a job and would certainly have a very different lifestyle if it weren’t for the sheep. Working with them and dealing with the uncertainty of farming, I feel, has also had an effect on the way he approaches problems in life. He interacts with them on a day to day basis for longer than he interacts with people, so they play an important role in his life – as he mentions “they are companions, characters, and part of my life”. He cares greatly about them and this is evident in his work.

I felt it was important that the film first acknowledged the day-to-day realities a sheep farmer is faced with during lambing time on the farm. I realise that many people will have never been to a farm and many of us fail to look further than the supermarket shelves in consideration of where our produce comes from. I hope this film lends an honest and open insight into farming which can broaden people’s perspectives and question generalised statements and opinions. Behind every piece of produce bought there is a producer – good, bad, or somewhere in between. We all have a part to play in upholding and encouraging excellent standards of food production. In the age of the Anthropocene, food production has become an increasingly important area of study with concerns surrounding the need to feed an ever-increasing population and doing so with environmental responsibility. I would like to note that the hills Kevin farms are permanent pasture, whilst he grows some crops this would be difficult to expand due to the nature of the land. 

Having been lucky to grow up near the farm and help my dad care for the sheep throughout my life, I initially found it difficult to remove myself from the context of his life and work in order to film with him and interview him on subjects I already felt rather connected to. Throughout the one week I spent filming him, and increasingly afterwards, I realised that there were important conversations that we had not touched on in the past. My dad’s relatively consistent acknowledgement of his age and his seemingly increasing appreciation for the hill that he has spent almost half of his life farming struck me as important and meaningful, subsequently guiding the direction of my film. Because of my interconnectedness with my dad and his job, I felt it necessary to be present throughout the film in order to be honest and reflexive about my role as a filmmaker, anthropologist, and daughter. Although I am not physically featured much my voice is present and I engage with Kevin throughout the film where it seemed natural.

The film moves from an exploration of the realities of farming towards themes of ageing, and a sense of place. These are two themes which have been explored extensively throughout anthropology. The Hill that Kevin farms could be seen as his hill, but it is clear that he is aware of the temporary nature of his position within the generations of others who have also farmed there and will continue to do so in future. This seems increasingly relevant as he reflects on his age and his ability to carry out physical aspects of the job. His awareness of this temporality struck me in particular when in reference to the possibility of losing his job he said, “then all of a sudden it’s just another hill, although it’s a massive part of my life it would all be gone”. Ethnographic films like Sweetgrass (Barbash, 2009) have drawn attention to the importance of the human body alongside the livingness of animals, in Sweetgrass the farmers must be able to make the long journey to the summer pastures alongside their animals. Kevin’s reflection on his aches and pains in relation to his ability to do the job are noteworthy. Whilst for many people, aches and pains may not extend an effect beyond human interactions, the sheep rely on a farmer’s presence and ability, making the body not just a human asset but a tool to effectively carry out labour and care for animals.

As his daughter, I felt it was particularly important to represent Kevin as candidly as possible, as a person for which humour serves many purposes – socially, and personally. Kevin is always laughing and seeing the light-hearted side of things, and something that people who meet him always reflect upon is his humour and upbeat personality. To me this seems to have been influenced by the nature of the job in which it could be easy to have a negative mindset whilst dealing with the many things that could go wrong or are outside of his control. Kevin mitigates this through humour and smiles and knowing that for every bad thing that may happen, something positive is around the corner. You could find him in the sheep shed on the darkest, wettest March morning and he will still be chuckling or singing a strange song he insists is real, but you’ve never heard before. Whilst he occasionally played up to the camera and attempted to direct me at times, I feel I was successful in capturing him honestly, and hopefully in a way that he can treasure.

References:

Daston, L and Mitman, G. 2005. Introduction: The how and Why of Thinking with Animals. In Daston, L and Mitman, G (Eds). Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. Columbia University Press. pp. 1-14.

 

Smaill, B. 2014. Documentary Film and Animal Modernity in Raw Herring and Sweetgrass. Australian Humanities Review (57). pp. 61-80.

Creative Process

Throughout the module and in our workshops, I particularly enjoyed experimenting with pulling focus and experimenting with perspective.

I hoped these skills were something I would be able to incorporate into my film. However I definitely underestimated the challenges of filming in dynamic settings, I found it difficult to maintain great focus and steadiness whilst shooting my dad carrying out tasks. Throughout the week I began to get better at this and managed to get some good footage, but this was something I initially struggled with.

I enjoyed finding interesting close up shots and filming the sheep at their level. I felt this added another dimension to my footage. I had some set backs such as forgetting to turn the microphone whilst filming A LOT of footage from my first day, but after making this mistake a couple of times it was instilled into me to turn the microphone on in future. I enjoyed having freedom to experiment with different shots and the farm was a really great place to shoot in a variety of settings.