A film about a family of farmers in the North Pennines and their addiction to breeding Swaledale sheep has become a surprise hit
Mark Kermode, film critic for The Observer and the BBC, said this about Addicted to Sheep, a documentary film about a North Pennines family of sheep farmers: ‘Told with affection but without sentimentality (life and death are unflinchingly intertwined), Magali Pettier’s debut feature gets under the skin of its subjects and the tough lives they lead.
‘While Tom and Kay Hutchinson joke about his devotion to rearing the perfect prize-winning sheep, their children reflect on the ups and downs of rural life with a wonderful blend of innocence and experience. The whole family are terrific company and Magali captures both the beauty and the bleakness of the environment in which they live and work.’
Not bad. Kermode followed that up with another review on his BBC blog in February this year, flagging up that the film was being released on DVD. The film has also been given four stars by Empire magazine and The Daily Mail, it was a hit at Sheffield’s documentary film festival, it was watched by over 500,000 on BBC4 earlier this year (though it was a trimmed version, 25 minutes short of its feature length), it went on iPlayer, it’s had 300 cinema screenings, and now it’s touring the North East and heading abroad.
If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, Addicted to Sheep doesn’t appear to be particularly special on paper: an 85-minute film about the Hutchinson family, tenant farmers on the Raby Castle estate, who spend their days looking after a flock of Swaledale sheep, hoping, year after year, to breed the perfect specimen (the title comes from a comment made by Tom about how breeding Swaledale sheep is the worst addiction known to man). However, the juice of the film is in the obstacles in their way, including the brutal weather on their hill farm, the fact that, according to Tom, sheep spend their lives trying to die, the blood and gore involved in actually trying to protect these creatures, and the fact that the Hutchinsons appear to make bugger all money, which begs a question: Why do they do it?
‘It’s purely a passion,’ says French director Magali Pettier, who created the film. ‘They just love it because they love their animals, they have a lot of respect for their animals, and they really want to create quality food that people enjoy – that’s why they do it. Also, they love that farm in particular, they love the community and they love the landscape. It’s a way of life.’
If you’re wondering why a French filmmaker ended up making a film about an often overlooked patch of the North East, you’re not alone – Living North wondered exactly the same thing. It turns out that Magali is actually an adopted Geordie. She grew up on a dairy farm in Brittany, which is where her interest in revealing the truth about life for farmers began, and why she has so much empathy for the Hutchinsons – ‘The difficulties and challenges are the same, and the worries are the same as well,’ she tells us.
Magali never felt tempted to work on her own family’s farm, and instead left France for London, then Hampshire, then travelled in Asia, before she went to Sunderland University in 2002 to study photography and video. After graduating and gaining a post-graduate qualification, she became a documentary photographer, taking pictures of social issues, such as migrant workers and refugees, as well making short films, including one about Barbour jackets. It was in 2010 that her farm film began to take shape.
‘I had felt in France that farmers are not valued the way that they should,’ explains Magali. ‘That was certainly my experience – it might not be everybody’s – so I thought that farmers should get more respect for what they did and there should be a better understanding of the challenges that they face.’
To spread that message, her first plan was to film a farm in France and a farm in England, but after spending five months on that, she realised that it was going to be too expensive, at which point she focused solely on the Hutchinsons, who she was ‘fascinated’ by.
‘In France we don’t have tenant farmers and to me it was just a strange concept that still existed,’ says Magali. ‘I thought I should explore that, and also what I liked about the Hutchinsons is that they had young children and I wanted to show what it was like to be brought up on a farm, and the resilience that those children tend to have and how different their childhood is compared to those of other children.’
The farm is on the Raby estate, home to Lord Barnard, and the Hutchinsons and their landlord have a good relationship, but Magali was reminded of whose land it is after she started filming and was contacted by the estate asking what she was doing (‘very, very pleasantly,’ she adds). Thankfully the landlords were ‘very nice and supportive of the film’, but Magali also had another concern: how Tom and Kay would react when they saw it.
‘We took it one step at a time because I was a bit worried that seeing themselves on the big screen would be a bit much,’ she laughs. ‘So we watched it on the laptop, then on the TV, then on the big screen, then on a very big screen, and after five times they said, “That’s it, we’re not watching it anymore.” They did enjoy it.”
Kay and Tom also had concerns about how the community would react, particularly as the point of the film is to portray the reality of farming – there could have been grumbles over how they portrayed farmers and rural life. To make sure the Hutchinsons would remain comfortable in the community, Magali arranged two community screenings. Thankfully, it all went well – ‘We had done justice to the way of life,’ she says.
No doubt the audience, like audiences around the country and soon the world, were heartened by the message of the film, illustrated by a scene filmed in the local school, which is attended by 15 children, all of whom live among the farming community. Their teacher asks them who wants to become a farmer and nearly every hand goes up (one girls needs persuading from a friend). One boy says he wants to farm Suffolk sheep because he likes their ears. One wants to raise rare breeds. Another wants to be an auctioneer. Having seen the film, it’s impossible not to cross your fingers and hope they all achieve their dreams.
To buy Addicted to Sheep on DVD or for details of screenings go to www.addictedtosheep.com. The film is scheduled to be shown at the Slaley Film Club in Hexham on 18 March and Alnwick Playhouse on 19 April.