World's Apart

in 55th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Claire Valade

Presented in the documentary section at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), Winter Nomads (Hiver nomade), a gorgeous first feature documentary by Swiss filmmaker Manuel Von Stürler, is all about the quietness of nature and the extraordinary persistence of age-old traditions. Every year, shepherd Pascal and his apprentice Carole set out, on foot, through the Swiss wilderness with 800 sheep, four dogs and three donkeys, to take their flock to graze on mountain fields and pastures for four months. This ancient journey is called transhumance and its object is to fatten up the beasts for consumption. After meeting his protagonists by chance as they passed by his house, Von Stürler set out to follow them throughout their next cycle and record the intricacies of their precarious, yet exhilarating existence in a landscape that can be unforgiving. The result is a tender, deeply affecting portrait of a dying way of life, but also of two human beings who have consciously — and happily — decided to live on the outskirts of the modern world.

The film opens at the beginning of the journey, as the shepherds are confronted with the perils of this modern world, leading the 800 sheep through a labyrinth of dangerous highway crossroads and zooming cars. The stark contrast between the old and the new is immediately apparent, almost to a shocking degree, as one wonders how a seemingly antiquated tradition manages to still exist among the sound and the fury of our contemporary world. As Pascal and Carole make their way deeper and deeper into the countryside, their quiet resilience and their passion for this deceptively simple way of life becomes more and more apparent.

The film shows very eloquently that there is much more to shepherding than a romantic notion of sleeping under the stars and barking commands at dogs. First, Pascal and Carole must deal with the elements (such as the unexpectedly early arrival of snow), which complicates their work and their day-to-day life. Finding the right pastures becomes much more difficult when one must first imagine what it looks like under the white blanket covering it. Von Stürler carefully chooses his images to illustrate his subject matter without having to add distracting comment. Indeed, his images speak volumes — the layers and layers of thick wool clothing, Carole’s beautiful dark calloused hands, the sheep’s noses foraging through the snow to hunt for rich grass. Then, there is the actual herding of the sheep, a much more complex adventure than it seems at first sight. Von Stürler shows us all of the intricacies of this activity, which never has a dull moment. How does one choose the direction to follow when the flock of sheep stretches over hundreds of meters of land or when an entire suburb has suddenly sprung up where you used to pass the year before? How does one choose a new head sheep to join the select group that leads the others? How does one contain the enthusiasm of the extraordinary dogs that gather the flock? As the days and months go by, we are privy to all of these little intangible details that show the infinite complexity of learning how to become a good shepherd, an apprenticeship that lasts a lifetime and that is as challenging and rewarding as better recognized, modern urban professions.

In this day and age, as the world seems to devolve more and more into multinational greed and capitalist chaos, there are voices that keep popping up in favour of the old ways — not out of maladjusted nostalgia, but out of respect for the world that surrounds us and for the value of taking time to nurture and care for what we will eventually consume. There is no doubt that the creatures Pascal and Carole are caring for will be eaten; yet they care for them guiltlessly, with great attention and love. They are proud of their sheep and the pleasure that they will bring to the customers who will feast on the lambs at Christmas. To them, it is a natural cycle of life and one that should be preserved.

The film is superbly shot, in a symphony of monochromatic natural tones (the beige-browns, dark greens, dirty whites and mousy greys of the fields, forests, rocks, animals and shepherds’ clothing) punctuated with flashes of colour (such as Carole’s bright red hat or the occasional patch of vibrant greenery discovered under inches of snow). Alternating close-ups of the beasts, revealing unsuspected depths of personality, and long shots of the group passing through fields, against the breathtaking background of the surrounding mountain peaks, Von Stürler creates a vivid testimony of the work accomplished and of the love these people have for their beasts and their way of life. Evoking both the artistic style of chiaroscuro and the whimsical, naïve humour of Brueghel paintings, Winter Nomads brings to life a pastoral painting full of an emotion worthy of the greatest masters.

Sitting squarely at the other end of the spectrum, The Law in These Parts (Shilton Ha Chok) by Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz is haunted with sound and fury, that of the by-products of a war fought long ago but that stills impacts today’s Israeli society and, in ricochet, the rest of the world. Powerful and thought-provoking, this deserving winner of the 2012 Sundance World Cinema Documentary prize also left an indelible mark on SFIFF audiences.

Reminiscent of Errol Morris’ masterpiece The Fog of War, not only because of its subject matter but also because of its rigorous structure, plain interview approach and heavily researched script, The Law in These Parts tackles the infinitely complex issue of the parallel military legal system that has been gradually set up, starting 45 years ago after the Six-Day War (1967), to rule the populations living under occupation on Israeli soil. Without ever imposing any form of judgement or taking sides in the ongoing conflict, Alexandrowicz limits himself to asking questions, citing comments and studies, and clarifying points of law. In doing so, he raises moral issues about accountability that point to the essence of democracy. Quoted in the SFIFF catalogue, the director states, “I had to find a way to engage and implicate the audience in this journey into the heart of Israel’s moral quandary — and the basic universal questions that it raises”. Without a doubt, he found a remarkably simple, yet very clever way of approaching his subject matter. Setting up a “witness testifying table” in an open studio, surrounded by a green screen where compelling archival material from the past 50 years of occupation is projected, he sits his guests — retired generals and majors, all lawmakers and the architects of the current system — at this “witness stand”, so to speak, and proceeds to interview them methodically and respectfully. Though one cannot help but wonder in amazement just how Alexandrowicz managed to convince these men to answer his questions, it is also very clear that he is not trying to trap them, hurt their reputations or push them into a corner. Simply, he wants to understand. And there lies the riveting, fascinating power of his film.

Showing a very deft use of narrative construction and a deep knowledge of the essence of documentary filmmaking, Alexandrowicz echoes the structure of a trial in which facts and information are carefully selected and presented to the jury or judge, so that they can make their minds up about the issue at hand. As he clearly states his purpose from the beginning (to document, strictly, the system, its laws and their architects, without speaking to or questioning victims and other participants in this conflict), he reveals his tactics, putting the audience in the dark theater in the position of the judge or jury, leaving them with a massive pool of information to decipher in order to make their minds up — and start asking questions that will push the issue further. The very fact that an Israeli citizen, albeit an inquisitive filmmaker, who admittedly benefits happily from the security afforded him by the system in place, is genuinely asking such uneasy questions about his own society and its politics, proves to be not only surprising, but also strangely stirring and deeply affecting. After all, this is not what we are used to expect about Israelis and their more commonly known, highly protective perspective on their country.

Slowly but surely, as Alexandrowicz clarifies the laws that support the system that has been implemented, we come to understand both the extraordinarily complicated stakes that drove these men to create the system and their dual desire to ensure the security of the Israeli population while protecting the occupied Arab residents. Divided into five chapters, the film highlights very quickly the unimaginably absurd quality of the situation as it evolved over time (one of the protagonists even goes so far as to declare, “A military judge does not represent justice”. For example, as Israeli residents started moving into the occupied territory, loopholes had to be found to avoid stripping land from their rightful Arab owners while still ensuring that there would be land for the Israelis to move into and build entire towns. Do these lawmakers have any regrets? Do they feel guilt about managing to overcomplexify a situation that was already beyond complex? It is very difficult to say. At first, they seem almost impassive, sometimes slightly annoyed, but one could argue that they never really show blatant pride or arrogance, even though some of them admit to feeling somewhat emotional while revisiting old trials or cases. Often, they prefer to evade uncomfortable issues or refuse to take a position on hypothetical situations suggested by the filmmaker (for example, whether the Israeli population would accept to live under the rule-of-law imposed on the occupied population).

Nevertheless, as McNamara did in The Fog of War, these ex-generals and colonels also frankly answer questions regarding the work they accomplished. They do not try to hide behind excuses or change their minds about old decisions taken during their years of service as military lawmakers. They stand by what they did, which seems quite remarkable in itself. In fact, most of them repeat that they were concerned above all with simply applying the law. The fact that this also required modifying said law to accommodate the needs of an ever-changing situation does not seem unethical or immoral to them, as these modifications were often meant to better protect both populations from abuses, regardless of eventual uses or outcomes of said modifications, including preserving the right to the occupied residents to appeal to the civil Israeli Supreme Court. But, as the interviews go on, the absurdity of the situation does not escape some of them. Near the very end, one even comes to show clear bitterness as he reveals that he knew about torture tactics used by questioners, despite affirmations to the contrary made in an independent inquiry into the use of torture on prisoners from the occupied territory. Ultimately, though they state that they believe in the system they created, some key interviewees also admit that it was never meant to be applied to a lasting situation. “It works temporarily”, they say. “But if the situation stretches over time…”, they add searchingly, without going into further detail. Forty-five years of this rule-of-law and what started out as an understandable will to ensure the security of Israel has devolved into a Kafkaesque quagmire whose moral price in human rights cannot yet be measured.

In fact, the most common observation or admission made by these men is that only time will tell what comes out of all this, only history will be able to judge their actions and the value of the system they created. None of them, however, is able to say just how much time needs to pass before the situation can be assessed or reassessed. For Alexandrowicz, it seems, the time to begin asking questions starts now. The solutions are left for us, citizens of the world, to find.