AMONG THE notable films featured in next week’s Galway Film Fleadh is Counting Sheep, a new feature-length documentary by Galway-based Romanian film-maker Dieter Auner.
Counting Sheep chronicles a world, untouched for centuries, struggling with profound change. Since joining the EU, Romanians are free to work as agricultural labourers in Germany and can earn more in one month than a year in their traditional occupation, as shepherds.
Observing this changing landscape, Auner’s documentary introduces us to Albin Creta, a teenage Romanian shepherd from northern Transylvania. We experience a year of his life as he works shepherding, cutting hay, making cheese, and dipping sheep.
In this sensitive, beautifully filmed, documentary, the drama is observed in the minutiae: the purchase of a car, the selling of lambs, departures for Germany, dark nights on the mountain and the day to day routines.
Albin and his family adapt to each trial, changing to meet the new demands asked of them. We can feel the loving attention to detail to the world of the rural Romanians – who seem entirely oblivious to the documentary production documenting the small changes in their lives. Small changes, yet the harbingers of a new world
“I didn’t want to make a plain documentary just about shepherds,” Auner tells me. “I wanted to do something that dealt with a universal theme so I decided to make a film that showed the loss of something while a society was becoming more prosperous.
“The Transylvanian shepherds are part of an ancient community yet it’s one that is also modernising. When I began researching the project I was surprised to find that it was a way of life that was already fast disappearing, the village that I filmed was the only one where you still had young people and the whole community still carrying on the shepherding tradition.
“The film questions what is the price of process. They want to be part of our world, to become more prosperous but on the other hand there are all these EC regulations which mean they can’t make cheese the way they used to and the price of lambs has gone down. In the past the shepherds were very prosperous because the wool and cheese and meat were in big demand but that’s no longer the case.”
The documentary eschews the use of voice-over and Auner explains his rationale behind that decision.
“I wanted to tell the story without the interference of a voice-over,” he says. “I think in our society we can get bombarded too much with information and we have very little space to reflect upon things.
“I wanted the film to tell a story where people could reflect upon what they see. I would cite the example of Abbas Kiarostami because he’s one of these masters that believes in the theory of ‘unfinished cinema’ and the idea that the film really happens in our heads, because we are mentally digesting what we see on the screen.”
The documentary is the fruit of four years intense work, including initial research and then a year spent living among the shepherds earning their trust and making them at ease with the camera. Auner’s diligence pays dividends as the family he films display no self-consciousness under the scrutiny of his lens.
“The difficult thing with the film is how you capture change, to show these people are changing,” Auner observes. “I needed to find symbols for that. The women were going to Germany for seasonal work as agricultural labourers and when they came back they had enough money saved to buy a car, and the purchase of that car for me symbolised the process of change.
“When I found out they were going to buy a car I realised straight away this was something I had to include, I was in Bucharest when I hear and I had to drive through the night to get to their village and then accompany them on another five-hour trek to the place where they got the car!”
Counting Sheep is a fascinating, nuanced, portrait of a rapidly vanishing way of life. It is being screened at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday July 8 at 5pm. For tickets contact 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie