Life and Death on an Israeli Sheep Farm

Humans have been sharing their lives with sheep since at least 8500 B.C., before we lived with horses, cats, chickens, or ducks, before the invention of fenced fields, writing, or the plow. Sheep are gentle and cute (whether through selective breeding or natural affinity), and the long process of their domestication means that they now rely on us for food and care. This can make it hard not to form a bond.

The documentary “Herd,” by Omer Daida, follows Na’ama, a young girl who helps her family look after sheep in a rocky, remote part of southern Israel. Na’ama is an animal lover. She pats the ewes that come up to her and doesn’t kill mice—she tries to catch and then raise them. She once had rabbits, but then one of her friends left the door open. Every Monday, her father, Itamar, drives lambs and goat kids to Haifa, where they are slaughtered. For Na’ama, it creates a contradiction between her love for the natural world and her love for her father and wish to help him in their family’s work. It is a constant, but perhaps not fully understood, tension.

Often, that tension expresses itself in a pure and simple obsession with life and death. Na’ama draws portraits of sheep who have left the farm: Zehava, a lamb who was born jaundiced, stayed jaundiced, and died; Rat, a “huge gray lamb” who escaped “somewhere out in the world” but who, she says, is also most likely dead. Itamar is a gruff and uncompromising man. He often pushes her around, gently, like a lamb, into and out of the pens. “That’s how they’re born,” he tells her, when she oversees her first lambing. And later, about a thin, sick lamb that won’t make it: “He’s going to die.” “No!” Na’ama says. “You’re going to die, too,” he tells her. “Everyone dies.”

Daida always intended to make a film about life and death, she told me, via e-mail. She lived for five years in the same region as the farm, and her initial idea was to film, over an entire winter, a truck driver who carries cows to slaughter. Then, when she was working as a waitress at a local restaurant, she met Na’ama and Itamar, who had come in for dinner. When they told her they ran a sheep farm, she realized that “this is the story I wanted to tell.” Daida’s style is a kind of studious, invisible immersion, and she manages to capture moments of intense, but unextraordinary, family intimacy. She took three years to film the documentary, often spending time on the farm without a camera to help the family acclimatize to her unobtrusive eye.

In “Herd,” the sheep, inevitably, start to form a kind of parallel family to Na’ama and Itamar. They are similarly pragmatic. To both, it is quotidian how life and death coexist. But sheep do not have the rituals of family that people do. Once her lamb is born, the mother sheep might lick the newborn if she is feeling kind—or, more likely, walk away. People have to parent. Daida told me that, when the family first watched the film, Na’ama turned to her father and told him, “You are the bad guy in the film.” The director doesn’t see it as clearly. “My opinion of and relationship with Itamar changed through the filmmaking process, and I believe that the audience passes through it, too, while watching,” she told me. “He treats Na’ama like a grownup, letting her discover and feel the world, the rough and beautiful parts of it.”

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