Pick of Sheffield Doc Fest - Ali And His Miracle Sheep
Thursday 17 June 2021, by
Maythem Ridha’s short film Ali And His Miracle Sheep won Best Film in the UK Competition of the Sheffield Doc Fest.
I feel it’s very important before you begin to read this review that you know who I am. I am not an academic, nor a seasoned critic, I am a pizza delivery driver from Basingstoke who wrote something on the internet and was subsequently invited to pitch some reviews for Mydylarama during the Sheffdoc festival. No I’m not entirely sure how it happened either but here we all are…
I was asked to choose from a selection of documentaries and short films, and the one that immediately jumped out to me was ‘Ali and his Miracle sheep’. MIRACLE SHEEP? COUNT ME IN! Who doesn’t want to watch a film about a magic sheep? Fools, that’s who. I made sure I was entirely prepared by booking a day off to ensure peaceful viewing of my chosen documentaries whilst carefully and professionally writing notes in order to mitigate the fact that I am entirely out of my depth here people. My planning (and purchase of serious notebook for writing serious notes in) went perfectly until I realised the day I had booked off was after the film had expired for me to view.
Having fucked up my first major writing job by not even having managed to see the thing I was supposed to be writing about, I had an entirely reasonable meltdown and then begged for help. You know, like a grown-up. Luckily, Maythem Ridha was very kind and gracious and sent me a link vis Abla Kandalaft of Mydylarama to watch the sheep. So far so miraculous.
A short and profoundly traumatising intro gives us a brief outline into what is about to happen. I had been prepared for the fact that the miracle sheep may not have an entirely nice time in this film, and having said sheep’s potential fate subtitled over the drawings of children who had, quite clearly, been witness to things that no child should be witness to, I was suitably prepared for what was to follow.
The film relies heavily on sound, Ali is mute and much of the atmosphere and storytelling is done through recorded laments and an astonishing prioritisation of background noise from sound designer Kim Tae Hak. From the very second the film proper starts the audio is dry, dry to the point of being brittle, where you feel the air itself might crumble like an old newspaper if you breathe too hard. I liked that a lot. Throughout the whole film the sound, whether it was focused on a speaker or absorbing the surroundings in general, really plonked you right in the middle of things, you could feel the heat and the dust and the flies, the dry rushes weaved by Ali’s grandmother, absolutely brilliant and a huge part of what made this film for me.
Anyway, back to the sheep. As an aside I am really into smallholdings and all who populate them; I have never seen this breed of sheep before so immediately started researching it. From my research it seems to be an Awassi, a widespread breed of hardy sheep from the region. However, it seems that the filmmakers did indeed find the wonkiest and most adorable version of that sheep that exists in ALL OF IRAQ. I’m hoping there were auditions.
The film synopsis suggests that Kirmeta (for this is the name of the wonky sheep) is Ali’s favourite sheep, however the fact that no other sheep are present in the early footage in the film makes this doubtful for me, why would he choose that sheep
Adorable though it clearly is, it’s not up to much even when just hanging out in the Grandmother’s garden, so why it was selected for a 400km trip through Iraq was a bit lost on me, but that feels like splitting hairs.
Ali and his teenage brother duly set off with Kirmeta the wonky sheep on their pilgrimage to honour their father who was killed fighting Isis, in a typical older brother fashion, the wobbly sheep is soon deposited on young Ali alone after a series of almost comical interventions from others on the pilgrimage suggesting what they should do with the animal as it veers between pathos and sheer bloody mindedness, and some helpful advice from what appear to be pilgrimage co-ordinators in a portacabin. The sheep is having none of it and decides to take up residence in a scrapyard. According to the film’s synopsis “amongst carcasses of cars leftover from decades of violence and false promises of freedom.” I honestly just thought the sheep looked really hot and needed a lie down in the shade for a bit, and also that Kimerta may have gotten wind of what was about to happen to him but again I may have missed the deeper meaning there. This is okay apparently, as the film is described as “simple enough for children to understand and enjoy as well as [a film] with layers of depth and meaning that will provoke the hearts and minds of adult audiences worldwide.” I would very much rate myself in the first category here, but even though many of the layers were lost on me, I was entranced by the filming of the pilgrimage, huge camels with what appears to be an entire theatre box on them loom over crowds of every generation, women with babes in arms, teenage boys, flags, music, more sheep – all with an atmosphere that builds and builds with each shot into a huge swelling mass of pure festivity, the cinematography from Duriad Munajim is superb throughout but the pilgrimage scenes are immense and immersive.
The sheep cares about precisely none of this and decides it’s time for a lie down again.
Another round of almost comic interventions ensue from various passers by (this is one of my favourite things about the film, that well-meaning but unsolicited advice is universal) until the sheep decides it would actually like to get up again, or that it’s had enough of being poked. One man decides, loudly, that this is a miracle and then it all gets a bit Life of Brian. This is superbly illustrated by young Ali, who appears older and more cynical than at the start of the film, his looks of bewilderment turning to wry amusement are perfectly delivered by Muslim Turkey, and underscore the coming-of-age shift that we witness as the brothers and Kirmeta the wonky sheep continue their journey. Kirmeta is now in a wheelchair that has been liberated by Ali’s brother, gazing around placidly at all and sundry as they try to nick his wool for good luck, at one point being pushed alongside a toddler in a pushchair in what is one of the film’s sweetest moments.
The general feel of the film is more humorous than I had been expecting. This helped me engage in what is an entirely new experience for me and made the more touching moments, such as where the boys are welcomed to the Imam Hussein Deaf and Mute tent with the words “Relax now while we serve you”, even more powerful. The matter-of-fact discussions around how many martyrs they were honouring were so plain, but also a stark reminder that this film isn’t just about getting a tired sheep from one place to another but the collective mourning of the Iraqi people for those loved ones lost or perhaps taken is the better word. Their grief and lamenting, combined with the festival atmosphere of the pilgrimage is so entirely alien to anything I have ever been a part of, that when a moment of wry humour appears it throws the rest of the work into stark relief.
Following the (not entirely unexpected) death of Kirmeta at the very end of the pilgrimage, Ali is left again rudderless, as his brother seems to finally have given in to the crushing grief of not being able to honour their father in Karbala and appears entirely disconnected from Ali’s inquisitive gaze. In a heart wrenching (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, my chest lurched whilst watching) final scene we bear witness to Ali screaming the first and last words you hear him say in the entire work “Father”, once again a little boy crying out in collective grief with his people for some comfort.
Here’s the Q&A from Sheffield Doc Fest for more about the film: