"Rams": Sheep Driving Force at Last LIFFe

in 26th Ljubljana International Film Festival

by Margarita Chapatte Lopez

RamsThere are countries which don’t have a powerful film industry, but from time to time yield the force of offering great cinema surprises. Such is the case with the Icelandic film Rams (Hrútar) by Grimur Hákonarson, which has been gradually building its reputation one festival award at a time.

Rams tells the story of two brothers who live in a remote Icelandic valley, and are entirely focused on their sheep stock, and the farm prizes won by their rams. Although living side by side, they hardly talk to each other. One day, however, a serious animal disease suddenly hits the valley, and the authorities order all sheep to be culled. The brothers refuse to comply in every possible way.

Grímur Hákonarson (born in 1977), graduated from Prague National Centre of Dramatic Art in 2001, and Rams is his first feature film, following a successful career as a director of award-winning short and documentary films. In his words, Hákonarson decided to immerse himself in rural subject matter as he has always been interested in it, all the more that he lived in the countryside until he was 17. For him, the North of Iceland was the obvious place to shoot since the main source of wealth there has always been cattle breeding. As Hákonarson claims, he also wanted to portray the strong bond of this isolated community to their animals since sheep are indeed in the centre of their lives.

Moreover, land ownership – which usually is associated with inheritance rights –  provokes conflicts between neighbours, and these fights often tear families apart within and without, alienating them from the rest of the people in the valley. So people are often leading quite isolated lives, focused on cattle and alcohol: a lonely and hard day-to-day life, where the only beings to talk to are sheep… and oneself. It is not difficult then to imagine the shock of Rams main characters when “scrape”, the lethal animal disease, suddenly sets in. The film is actually about the salvation of everyone, men as well as cattle, from extinction.

Yet there is also a touch of comedy in this drama. The brothers Gummi and Kiddi are also very funny, even though generally surly and unenthusiastic, particularly to each other. Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson are experienced theatre performers, but offer an amazingly physical performance with few verbal exchanges, building their characters with strong and stubborn, a never-say-die attitude. What Rams masterfully portrays in this harsh reality are the nuanced emotional details, seen here as universal markers of human interaction, no matter whether taking place in the Icelandic rural wilderness or in the big city. Deeply felt human interaction – the only way to transcend loneliness and give meaning to life – can indeed stand or fall on sheep!

According to Hákonarson, an essential and complex part of the shooting of Rams were the animal actors. The film team had to carefully select the “starring” sheep, along with the farmers, who helped with them. Although it may sound cliché, sheep are indeed difficult and exigent animals. The human actors, foreign to animal farming, had to also adapt to cattle, which probably prompted the filmmaker to declare that “our sheep are incredible actors, easier to work with than most of the other (human) ones. They should definitely be nominated to all kinds of acting awards, and they will win them all!”

I believe that Rams, this incredible “Icelandic western”, featuring sheep in lieu of horses, is a preeminent cinematic work, describing the essential need of human beings for one another. It is an excellent study in loneliness, repetitive and dull reality, which could be also made amazingly rich through a touch of humanness. While such is the theme of a countless other feature films, in the middle of the remote Icelandic landscape, populated by sheep, this deeply felt proposition is both recommendable and original.

Edited by Christina Stojanova