Fifteen minutes after stepping off the Tube at Piccadilly Circus, I found myself in the North Pennines.
At least that’s what watching Addicted to Sheep – Magali Pettier’s new documentary – felt like. For an hour and a half I was transported to the fells of the North Pennines, following the Hutchinsons – Tom, Kay and their three children – through a year on their family sheep farm.
“Swaledale sheep are one of the worst addictions known to man,” Tom claims at the start of the documentary, fussing and prodding the ram he has by the horns, pointing out each of its imperfections (“his hair’s a bit too short here, the colour’s wrong here”). His daughter, on the other hand, is non-plussed with farming life, saying that cows should “pick up their own poo, instead of us”.
The Hutchinson family are the warm heart of a documentary set in a harsh climate and is about an unforgiving profession. That said, Pettier manages never to allow her film to stray into over-sentimentalism. Life and death on the farm comes and goes with the seasons and, as Tom suspects “the only goal a sheep has is to die – that’s all they really want to do.”
His humour is typical of his emotional steadfastness throughout the film, despite doing a job that’s incredibly demanding physically with little monetary reward. In one scene he’s shearing sheep at the rate of £1.15 per sheep – something he’s forced to do over the summer to make rent payments on his farm tenancy.
Despite seeing their parents at work all hours, the children at the primary school in Addicted to Sheep all want to follow their parents into the profession. Pettier captures their enthusiasm in these classroom scenes brilliantly – each of the children speak with an authority about farming that seems well beyond their young years.
It’s in scenes like those in the primary school that you get the impression that you really are looking in on a very different world, even though it’s only a few hundred miles to the north. The whole vocabulary of sheep-rearing – gimmers turning into yows, tupping and siring – opens a window into a profession full of skills and lore as old as civilisation itself.
Holding this beautifully poised documentary together are the fells of the North Pennines. In the winter months, Pettier captures the white hills looking like ink drawings, dotted with grey dry stone walls. The land alternates between stillness and warmth, echoing the cycle of life and death that plays out on the fells.
There’s lots to gush over in Addicted to Sheep, but it’s brilliantly restrained, and never overly sentimental. Instead, its detached honesty allows viewers to fall into the rhythms of farming life for the duration of the documentary, following a truly remarkable family who see themselves as anything but.
You can find out where Addicted to Sheep is showing here