Genre-tweaking pic "37 Uses for a Dead Sheep," by Brit helmer Ben Hopkins ("The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz"), blends dramatic material with docu footage to tell the recent history of the Pamir Kirghiz, a tribe from Central Asia whose members now live in Eastern Turkey. Collage of Super8, 16mm and digital footage has a playful, knobbly texture while wryly humorous touches elevate this superior ethnographic docmaking. Although destined for broadcast on upmarket cablers, "Dead Sheep" could easily be found in adventurous fests.
Quirky title refers to docu footage threaded throughout the film showing Hopkins getting a list from Kirghiz elder Baki Bahader of the many foodstuffs to be gotten from sheep (all seem to be variations on yogurt) and ways the woolly livestock can be used (as coinage, for ceremonial sacrifice) in the Turkic tribe. Early voiceover by the helmer explains pic was made not just about, but in collaboration with, the Pamir Kirghiz who live in village of Ulupamir, Turkey, and who take key production roles and thesp parts here.
Tribe's history unspools through traditional history-telling methods and reconstructed scenes, mocked up to look like grainy silent movies from the '20s, complete with intertitles. Tribe's current headman, Arif Kutlu, plays Haji Rahman Qul, the tribe's last official "khan" or leader, as an older man, while Kutlu's son Alpaslan Kutlu plays Qul as a younger man in the reconstructions.
Film explains how the semi-nomadic Kirghiz lived in the high mountains that straddle borders of contempo Russia, China and Afghanistan, raising their herds exactly as they had done for centuries. Driven from country to country in the 20th century by Communist oppression, the tribe was finally offered a new homeland by their distant relatives the Turks in 1983 after Moses-like efforts by Qul to keep his people united as a community.
However, the tribe's old ways are fast disappearing as the younger generation seeks modern forms of employment and feels no nostalgia for the snowy Pamir Mountains. Meanwhile, Hopkins frequently turns the camera on himself and the crew as they negotiate with locals to get the film made, occasionally falling into dispute with them, for example when one local woman objects to the portrait of her father as an opium addict.
Pic's frequently jocular tone could invite accusations from the high-minded that it's serving up cute ethnic people for Western auds' amusement, especially when Hopkins mentions having to pay the extras with sheep to keep them from drifting off during a tricky day's filming. But filmmakers' affection and respect for their Kirghiz collaborators, whose storytelling skills and warmth endure despite their hardships, shines through. Approach here makes a welcome break from the usual solemnity and piousness of most ethnographic documaking.
Camera (color/B&W, Super 8, 16mm, DV, DigiBeta), Gary Clarke; editor, Marco Van Welzen; music, Paul Lewis; art director, costume designer, Seda Orsel; sound, Hasan Baran; assistant director, Irem Soydan. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 15, 2006. Running time: 84 MIN.