Winter Nomads: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Gently pleasing documentary on long-distance shepherding will prove a popular choice for festivals and TV.

Manuel von Stürler's Swiss documentary follows an unlikely duo on a long distance shepherding journey with 800 sheep.

The idea that “only sheep need a leader” is charmingly debunked by Swiss documentary Winter Nomads (Hiver nomade), which follows two old-school shepherds as they conduct their flock over several months and hundreds of miles through some beautiful but rapidly-changing countryside. An unassuming and suitably gentle-paced charmer, it´s ideal for TV networks and festivals seeking well-made, audience-pleasing non-fiction.

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First-time director Manuel von Stürler lucked out in terms of finding subject-matter when fiftyish Pascal and his young assistant Carole happened to pass close by his house. He then arranged to accompany the duo on their next “transhumance,” a centuries-old method of sheep-fattening which involves a trek through suitably grassy areas where the animals can feed in a natural way. Such zones are becoming surprisingly thin on the ground even in Switzerland – not a country one associates with urbanization. While they are largely welcomed by those they encounter, Pascal and Carole do experience problems with certain farmers who aren´t thrilled by the prospect of 800 sheep wandering over their property.

As well as their ovine charges, Pascal and Carole travel with various sheepdogs plus donkeys to carry the tents and equipment needed for night after night of sleeping under the stars. The screen is thus full of scene-stealingly appealing four-legged stars, including one particularly irresistible sheepdog puppy who we observe learning the ropes of his genetically-inherited “profession.” Some of the sheep – the bell-wethers who walk at the head of the formation – even manage to register as distinctive personalities.

But the focus is largely on Pascal and Carole, an unlikely duo whose relationship – husband /wife, father /daughter – is tantalizingly unclear until after the halfway point. It is then revealed that they are neither relations nor romantically involved but colleagues, Pascal passing on the northern Italian traditions which he learned from Bergamo shepherds in his time. The film thus unobtrusively establishes a long chain of “guidance”, from the sheep to the bell-wethers to the dogs to Carole to Pascale - who during one campfire chat speaks of himself being subject to a higher presence. “I´m convinced that we have a protector, who guides us,” he ruminates.

At such moments Winter Nomads emerges as somewhat wider in its intentions than just another record of a bygone, progress-threatened way of life. But even on that front, it´s a solidly crafted work - sensitively shot and edited, even if a little conventionally manipulative in the way it intermittently underlines the bucolic, elegiac tone by means of Olivia Pedroli´s folk-inflected score.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 13, 2012.
Production company: Louise Productions
Director: Manuel von Stürler
Screenwriters: Manuel von Stürler, Claude Muret
Producers: Elisabeth Garbar, Heinz Dill
Co-producers:  Irène Challand, Gaspard Lamunière, Patrizia Pesko , Annie Bataillard
Director of photography: Camille Cottagnoud
Editor: Karine Sudan
Music: Olivia Pedroli
Sales Agent: Louise Productions, Lausanne
No rating, 89 minutes.