Director Magali Pettier and co-producer Jan Cawood talk to Ania about their maverick documentary about farmers who breed sheep in the North Pennines
Since 2010, Underwire has established itself as the UK’s only short film festival dedicated to showcasing the raw cinematic talents of women across all creative roles, from director to sound designer. I am very excited to learn that the 2015 edition of the festival would include feature length films by women for the first time. Gabriella Apicella, one of the festival co-founders and organisers, tell me that for their first features year they chose three ‘firsts’ too: Helen Walsh’s first fiction feature The Violators, Emma Thompson’s screenwriting debut in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Magali Pettier’s first feature documentary Addicted to Sheep.
I am biased towards film non-fiction, especially made by women, and after watching the screener of Addicted to Sheep I really want to interview the filmmakers, director Magali and her producer Jan Cawood, to get some insight into its making. With a little help from the amazingly efficient Underwire team, we coordinate our schedules and on 21 November 2015, I’m sitting in comfy red armchairs at the busy lobby of Hackney Picturehouse in London with two women responsible for making a raw and touching observational documentary about the tenant farmer’s family breeding sheep in the wind-swept North East of England. As we talk, the festivalgoers are watching the film on one of the Picturehouse screens and Magali and Jan are waiting to participate in after-the-screening Q&A, 27th since the film premiered in Sheffield in June 2015.
Magali Pettier grew up on a dairy farm in Brittany, France and came to England 16 years ago, originally to study sports. After a year of travelling in Asia and nurturing her interest in photography, she came back to the North East, to Sunderland, and got a BA in photography, video and digital imagining and an MSc in IT before moving full-time into filmmaking. Jan Cawood, originally from Leeds, grew up in the North East and after a five-year spell in London that included working for the BBC, she got a degree in history of art design and film in Sheffield. “My dissertation was on female sexuality in British New Wave movies,” says Jan, with a smile, “I never really thought about it too much after that.” She worked in PR and marketing and then started making short films herself.
When the two met, Magali was already working on her documentary, partially funded by Northern Film & Media after a Sheffield Doc/Fest pitching session. She had done the shooting and had about 62 hours of footage when “Jan came to help [her] position the film better”. Magali was looking for funding to be able to take her project to the next level and in the meantime the duo collaborated on a short documentary about Barbour (luxury clothing company), A Jacket for Life, seen through the eyes of a customer. “We made a short film to see if we could get on,” explains Jan, half-jokingly.
Jan was “always around”, asking how the work on the feature was progressing and, finally, she sat down to watch the first 20 hours of footage, most of which hadn’t been logged. These hours were shot in winter and Jan recalls how “it was lovely to sit in the warm house watching it”. She really liked what she saw but wasn’t sure what direction the film would go: someone else who saw the footage mentioned the good characters while for Jan it was mostly about the breathtakingly beautiful landscape.
The time came to make a decision and Jan remembers saying: “We’re either jumping off the cliff and having a go or not. Shall we do it? Because nobody else is coming out of the woodwork, and you can ring people, you can ask for help, you can ask for funding, but in the end you should just get on with it.” They enlisted the editor they had worked with on the Barbour film (Matt Dennis), who they had a good working relationship with, and Magali wrote her director’s mission statement, indicating she was aiming for both cinematic release and presence at film festivals for her documentary.
Magali wants her film to educate the mainstream audience about a way of life they don’t know: “Being from a farming background myself, I was really aware of the fact that people don’t really respect the farmers the way they should, that they don’t understand much about farming.” “I knew how difficult it could be to be a farmer, even if you own your farm,” she adds, expressing her amazement at the fact that some people in the North East choose to be tenant farmers, paying rent to stay on the farm, an arrangement that doesn’t exist in France.
Addicted to Sheep features numerous group scenes, most notably with the children in the local elementary school, but the main focus is the Hutchinson family: mother, father and three young children. As Magali recounts the film’s journey from its conception, it becomes clear how her approach changed: her initial aim was to compare two farmer families in Brittany with two in the North East.
Self-funded and involving lots of travelling, the project proved too ambitious for one person and, after six months, Magali decided to focus on what really inspired her, still drawing on her life experience: “From the beginning I wanted to show what it was like to be brought up on a farm, from a farmer’s child’s point of view, and to show how resilient those children are and how, I think, [they are] in many ways different from other children.” The British Agricultural Support Services agency put Magali in touch with the Hutchinsons, who were the family, out of three, who stayed onscreen. This zooming in helped to make an observational-style documentary. “From very early on, I knew it wasn’t going to be a lot of people talking… but that people [the audience] would be able to really experience somebody’s life,” says Magali.
Magali filmed for 45 days over an 18-month period, staying with the family during shooting periods (two or three days at a time, with the longest spell of a week over Christmas). Apart from the harsh, extremely windy weather and lack of a sound person (who would have been especially helpful in a barn scene, where a young girl’s voice competes with the sounds of animals and chains), this was the most challenging aspect of filming:
The difficult thing as a filmmaker, when you’re staying in somebody’s house, is that you feel you’re intruding on their personal space…You have to accept that this is your job.
Magali also describes how she always remembered to make sure her film was going to be different to what people have seen before, such as on sites like BBC Countryfile, and that this brought out some humour: “I had to find ways to direct it in a way that it was going to attract some jokes and that wasn’t always easy. I think in the end [the] three of us understood that, so it all came out in the end.”
I don’t consider myself a squeamish person, but like a large portion of the film’s audience, I’ve lived in the city all my life and some scenes did take me out of my comfort zone, especially the lambing scene. Seconded by Magali, Jan asserts that they “didn’t want it to be so extreme that it wouldn’t be a mainstream audience film” and that not once during their 26 Q&As did they have anyone protesting or expressing their disgust or offence. Magali says she saw people sometimes turning their heads away from the screen, but adds, with a sense of mission: “We just had to show reality and that was our one opportunity, probably a one-in-a-lifetime, to educate people about farming and this is what we have done.” Jan adds that the country children, as young as four or five, see what we view as an audience, witnessing lambing and other messy natural acts on regular basis.
Magali does however recount a recent story that took her slightly aback. On 15 November 2015, the film was screened at the Aldeburgh Film Festival with great fanfare. Before the screening, the festival’s organisers brought in a butcher to do a demonstration of how to cook a lamb. Magali had been unaware of this plan and was somewhat worried that people wouldn’t take it well. One man didn’t watch the demonstration and left halfway through the film: “He said: ‘I’m a vegetarian, my wife has told me I should come and see the film’. Obviously, it wasn’t for him and that’s fair enough.” Most people, however, enjoyed the lamb tagine served afterwards and gave very positive feedback, saying they had learnt a lot. Magali thinks it’s important for meat eaters to understand the food chain and be more aware of where the meat they eat comes from and how the animals are treated: “It’s about time that people realise, when they pick up a piece of chicken in the shop, that they know what happened to it, or to the lamb, and then they can make a conscious decision whether or not they want to eat meat.”
Addicted to Sheep has been doing really well since its international premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June 2015, with more than 140 screenings in 56 or so venues (“from Isle of Lewis to Cornwall”) and 26 Q&As to date [accurate as of 21 November, 2015]. Jan reports: “Near where we live, even though it’s a small venue in Richmond [North Yorkshire], it screened 17 times because it sold out each time.” Magali estimates that about 10,000 people have seen the film (to which I exclaim: “That’s absolutely amazing!” and mean it) and that many of them farmers, who love it. Anyone interested can book a community screening and download the PDF of the poster and flyer from the website, making it easier for even hard-to-reach communities to see it. People ask when the film will be available on DVD and email Magali, saying they loved it and now want their neighbours to see it too. “It’s like they’re fighting for you,” she beams.
Addicted to Sheep was shown to the Underwire programmers by Elhum Shakerifar, one of the producers of the A Syrian Love Story documentary, who Magali met in Sheffield five years ago. Jan and Magali are very pleased to be part of the festival, as it’s another opportunity for them to be back in London and attract even bigger audience. Jan also touches on the issue of role models for women and others underrepresented in filmmaking and how important it is to make oneself visible: “We’ve become more conscious that we should present ourselves to show other people that it can be done…You feel like you should, really. You look to other people who’ve got a bit of a track record for advice…[As a woman], you’ve got to be brave.”
Of course my last question is about their plans for the future, to which Magali answers: “A lot of people ask: ‘Have you already got another idea [for a film]?’ but I’m not that kind of person who would churn out ideas. I’m going to put my heart and soul into something and make it work.” Magali will be working hard on online and DVD distribution, as there is a lot of demand from America and Canada and she hasn’t yet come across an appropriate distributor there. The next step will be going to other European countries: she’d love to show the film in France and believes it would work well subtitled. Jan says she will be selective with future creative projects: “I wouldn’t want to just dive in and do more and more, because it’s quite a big chunk of time and you only have so many stories you want to tell in your life.”
Magali admits she works a lot and would love to take a break sometimes but is also aware that “the moment that you’ve taken a break from it, it’s hard to come back”. I can’t resist asking if she is now addicted to sheep too and she admits this could be a lifetime project, what with all the educational work she feels still needs to be done. However, she adds that she doesn’t want it to be.
Having spoken for over half an hour, Jan and Magali wrap up our conversation with some thoughts on the determination required for documentary making:
Jan: From what we’ve learnt, you have to go through the journey to learn it, really, don’t you? Nobody else is going to do it for you. The only way it’s going to get anywhere is if you’re passionate about it and push it yourself. Everybody’s busy [and] there is not much money in it at all…Going back to those pitches, they didn’t look for the project, they looked for the person. And [looked] if you’ve got that within you, to go the distance, ‘cause it takes some stamina, doesn’t it? Magali did the filming, and that itself is exhausting, and then there’s the next bit and then there’s the bit after that…
Magali: …and then there’s distribution.
Jan: You’ve got to have that within you to not drop the ball, really.
Magali: And to adjust your lifestyle around that because it does affect it quite a lot.
Jan: I reckon what we’ve learnt is, it’s possible.
You can pre-order Addicted to Sheep DVD, to be dispatched on 15 January.
There are scheduled screenings around the country (mainly in the north) until the end of February 2016.
You can book a community screening too.
All pictures are taken from Addicted to Sheep website.
First picture is a portrait of Magali Pettier and Jan Cawood. It shows two women, looking into the camera, smiling broadly with their teeth showing. They are in front of a shelf with numerous old-style hand-held cameras and piles of film cans. Magali (on the left) has brown shoulder-length wavy hair and hanging blue earrings, and a nose stud. She’s wearing a low-cut white top and a purple cardigan. Jan (on the right) has shorter platinum-blonde hair, she’s wearing a black turtleneck and a white jacket.
Second picture is of a man (it’s Tom Hutchinson) in a red anorak, among the sheep in a pen. Sheep are white with black heads and long curly horns.
Third picture is of Magali Pettier, shooting on location in the North Pennines. She is a young woman wearing a black waterproof jacket, holding a small camera in her hands and wearing big headphones on her head. She’s looking to the left, smiling.
Fourth picture is of a woman (it’s Kay Hutchinson) at night in a snowy yard. She is wearing dark trousers and jacket with a soiled red padded vest over it, and a black cap. She’s carrying two presumably dead plucked chickens, turned upside down. There’s a moon in the sky surrounded by some clouds and it is possible to make out another human silhouette behind her.