This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.
In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.
Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.
Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.
This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.
This was the first disappointment of the festival for me. The festival brochure makes much of the prize and high critical ratings that the film has received but it seems to me that it takes too much time over its limited character studies. The praise perhaps helps to demonstrate the gulf between the festival critic and the cinema audience – even one attuned to arthouse films. Festival critics are keen to latch onto something new. The two directors, Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone were making their debut feature. DoP Eric Alirol shot on 16mm blown up to be projected on 35mm – which we watched on the large Pictureville screen – and this is perhaps another reason for its critical success since the film looks and feels quite different to most of the festival’s digital offerings.
There has been a debate about ‘slow cinema’ over the last few years and there is certainly an argument to say that having time to reflect and observe can create new experiences for audiences. But there must be something to see and something to think about. Here I thought that we needed to know a little more about the people and the place. The title (‘Sheep’) refers to the nickname given to a young man (presumably aged 17) who is forcibly removed from the control of his mother by local social services and who gets himself a ‘live-in’ kitchen job in the small coastal town of Courseulles-sur-Mer in Basse-Normandie (the site of Juno beach for the Canadians during the D-Day landings). We see Mouton at work and at play with the others who work in the restaurant-hotel and with his friends in the town. There is a dramatic incident halfway through the film but little in the way of conventional narrative (a young waitress starts work in the restaurant and Mouton starts a relationship with her). At the end of the film you do feel that you have learned something about the lives of a small group of people in a particular region of France – but that doing so has been a bit of a slog.
This isn’t to say that the film is without merit and several scenes work very well. To pick a couple at random, a young man feeds the dogs in a dark and dingy kennel block and then hoses himself down. In another the central character comes back from the beach and washes the sand from his feet (in a big close-up). These simple actions work well on screen but I couldn’t help thinking that they might have been more effective in a series of short films. Similar sequences (filmed rather differently) are offered in some of the shorts which have accompanied the feature screenings at BIFF.
I feel mean in not responding more positively to Mouton but it is in the end a matter of taste and what we think cinema is for. For a feature of this kind (100 mins) I personally want more to get my teeth into. If the intention is to explore a documentary drama technique, I think that could work in half the time.