800 sheep, 4 dogs, 3 donkeys and 2 shepherds are the winter nomads behind Manuel von Sturler’s documentary, Hiver Nomade (Winter Nomads). For the past 33 years, shepherd Pascal has been making a 600km trip across Switzerland, gleaning unharvested land for his flock – for the past six, he has been joined by the younger Carole who left behind her life in Brittany to pursue a wilder existence. Despite relentless blizzards, renegade sheep and heightened tempers, this four month expedition proves to be a meditative journey for both them, and us, the viewer.
In her book Wild – An Elemental Journey, Jay Griffiths describes wildness as ‘resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger.’ It is this sense of freedom and hunger that drives this depiction of life on the fringes – one that is radical, but steeped in tradition. There is a sense of the absurd in the juxtaposition between such a biblical existence in contemporary Europe, illustrated in a scene where we see Carole leading sheep over a busy flyover. As cars whizz below, the snow-caked flock plod on, seemingly unphased by this concrete modernity.
The daily routine for the shepherds is simple, but gruelling Wading through snow, they scrape the ground to find grass for grazing, forging a path through unending white. Miles of silence are punctuated by Pacal’s calls as he instructs Carole to lead the animals – her up front, him up back. At night, they set up camp under a canvas cover, drinking wine by the fire’s edge. However, despite the physical endurance required for this transhumance, there is a purity and beauty to their work.
During their journey they encounter strangers curious about their lifestyle; others, whose land they cross, are less welcoming. Over the years Pascal has made lifelong friends on this well-trodden path, and him and Carole are warmly greeted. Some of my favourite scenes in the film are based around food, reflecting the simple pleasures of eating – on Christmas day, they treat themselves to oysters and cake; one night, they melt a steaming pot of fondue on the fire; on one cold day, a stranger brings them pizza, which is the height of luxury. Through theses scenes, Sturler creates a sensual portrait of this solitary life where every meal is savoured and company a pleasure.
The gentle rhythm and uncluttered narrative of Hiver Nomade creates a deceptive simplicity. Sturler’s emphasis on diegetic sound – using music sparingly – creates a less affected, more authentic experience, as we become immersed in the sounds of sheep bells, crunched snow and kindling fire. Throughout, an emphasis is put on life’s fundamental necessities – shelter, food and warmth – and we are invited to reassess our own perception of the good life.
This quiet film about wilderness, travel and simplicity is a rejection of the unnecessary. It is a rejection of a sedentary life. Above all, it is a celebration of freedom.
Dochouse, in collaboration with Open City, will be screening Hiver Nomade at Riverside Studios on 6 June.