Two men and their prized sheep face a turning point on the eve of one of Islam’s holiest days in “Of Sheep and Men,” the feature documentary debut of the Swiss-Algerian filmmaker Karim Sayad, which world premieres in Toronto.
Set in the working-class suburbs of Algiers, a world of low expectations and modest dreams, the film focuses on Hamid, a genial 16-year-old who wants to train his ram to become a fighting champion, and Samir, a careworn father selling sheep for slaughter as the Eid al-Adha holiday approaches.
It’s an intimate portrait of men on the margins, a segment of society that Sayad says was “always underrepresented in Algerian cinema.”
Born in Lausanne to an Algerian father and Swiss mother, Sayad traveled frequently to Algiers as a child, forging an emotional bond with the country that would influence him in the years ahead. Though his travels were disrupted by the brutal civil war of the 1990s, he returned to Algeria in 2007 to work with the United Nations Development Program, where his experiences would help shape “Of Sheep and Men.”
At the film’s heart is Eid al-Adha, known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar. As Algerians prepare to celebrate the holiday with the slaughter of sheep, Sayad explores the different ways that sacrifice — religious, personal, patriotic — has shaped their nation, noting, “Every change in this country since its independence was met through violence.”
With the brutal struggle for liberation from the French followed by decades of military rule and a long and bitter civil war, Algeria’s history is steeped in bloodshed. But while the Arab Spring roiled its North African neighbors, a de facto dictatorship has resigned the country to an uneasy stasis, governed by a corrupt and aging leadership that’s left most Algerians with little hope for change.
While Hamid once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, he’s been forced to abandon his studies, and hopes to bolster his reputation in the blue-collar neighborhood of Bab el Oued on the strength of his prized ram.
For Samir, who’s been disillusioned by years of sacrifice and wayward leadership, his only hope is to provide a better future for his son.
It’s unclear throughout the film whether those hopes can be realized. Algeria is a tightly controlled country with few outlets for personal expression or release. The codified violence on display throughout “Of Sheep and Men” portrays a society where outward displays of masculinity hide deeper layers of impotence in the face of repression.
Sayad compares that conflict to a “schizophrenia” in Algeria today.
“You see this ambivalence between the need for change, and at the same time knowing the change will come with blood and violence,” he says.
Drawing on their own brutal history in the face of oppression, while witnessing the costs of the Arab Spring all around them, Sayad says Algerians “know maybe better than anyone else the price to pay to contest that.”