Edinburgh Festivals Magazine

Off the Beaten Track

A documentary about shepherds? I must confess I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, inspirational and sometimes funny depiction of this tough life.

Based in Romania shortly after it joined the EU, the film focuses on two brothers who follow in the family tradition of putting personal life second to the undeniably high commitment of tending a large flock of sheep. The film portrays the increasingly tough struggle to make any kind of living from herding – cheese and wool give little profit and their only substantial annual income comes once a year from selling lambs – an income increasingly threatened by over-supply and low world prices.

Documentary-maker Dieter Auner joined the brothers during a period of great and rapid transformation, and this is most represented by the movement of the flock on public roads – at the start of the film, cars accommodate the movement of the sheep  – by the end, this traditional way of life is highly regulated by the government, including a lecture by an official on how and when the villagers should move their sheep and an insistence on prioritising traffic movement. Despite probably despising the new rules for a way of life that has been passed down for generations, the families take this in their stride, accepting and adapting to change frequently without complaint or question.

I was impressed by how unobtrusively Dieter Auner appeared in their lives – he was with the family over a year and they let him in to every aspect of their lives, to the tears of the younger brother while his mother leaves to go back to work in Germany – increasingly their main source of income – to the family discussions on why they bother to continue keeping sheep at all – the brothers would also like to go to work in Germany, where the money is considerably better, but could not possibly leave the elders of the family to cope with a massive workload.

A rather depressing outlook filmed simply and without pretension, and supported by traditional music, Auner manages to convey that despite increasing hardship, this close-knit family remains positive and a strong unit throughout. My favourite part? The excitement of the aging matriarch of the family when a mobile and a landline phone ring at the same time – her expression is hilarious!

Filmhouse 3, 20 June 10.30pm, 21 June 7.45pm