Ben Hopkins – 37 Uses For A Dead Sheep (2006)

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portrait of the Kirghiz tribe, living a quasi-Iron Age existence in one of the remotest places on earth.

37 Uses For A Dead Sheep is a documentary with a sense of humour. However, as he recounts the eventful history of Central Asian tribe the Pamir Kirghiz, director Ben Hopkins stays on the right side of Borat-style ethnic mockery, treating his subjects with affection and esteem. He also turns a few of them into film stars in a range of reconstructions that entertainingly reveal the community’s journey over the last century or so.

Evocative title, that. Could the film itself possibly match it? Director Ben Hopkins finds the Pamir Kirghiz, a small Central-Asian tribe now living in eastern Turkey, and works together with them to craft a fleet-footed, intriguingly pomo documentary about this little-known group of nomads. Hopkins uses the tribes people to reenact moments from their history (shot in grainy 16mm), then shoots himself shooting them, then interviews them about it, while intercutting it all with images of their life today, in a village the Turkish government pretty much settled just for them. Oh yeah, there’s also a framing device in which the director talks to an old Kirghiz man about—you guessed it—all the things they can do with a dead sheep. It’s all very meta, but once Hopkins reveals the odd backstory of this people, pingponging between the Great Powers (Russia, China, the U.K.) who controlled their homeland at various times, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate approach to this material. The result is an inventive look at some truly unwitting victims of history’s relentless, unforgiving march.

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portrait of the Kirghiz tribe, living a quasi-Iron Age existence in one of the remotest places on earth.

37 Uses For A Dead Sheep is a documentary with a sense of humour. However, as he recounts the eventful history of Central Asian tribe the Pamir Kirghiz, director Ben Hopkins stays on the right side of Borat-style ethnic mockery, treating his subjects with affection and esteem. He also turns a few of them into film stars in a range of reconstructions that entertainingly reveal the community’s journey over the last century or so.

Evocative title, that. Could the film itself possibly match it? Director Ben Hopkins finds the Pamir Kirghiz, a small Central-Asian tribe now living in eastern Turkey, and works together with them to craft a fleet-footed, intriguingly pomo documentary about this little-known group of nomads. Hopkins uses the tribes people to reenact moments from their history (shot in grainy 16mm), then shoots himself shooting them, then interviews them about it, while intercutting it all with images of their life today, in a village the Turkish government pretty much settled just for them. Oh yeah, there’s also a framing device in which the director talks to an old Kirghiz man about—you guessed it—all the things they can do with a dead sheep. It’s all very meta, but once Hopkins reveals the odd backstory of this people, pingponging between the Great Powers (Russia, China, the U.K.) who controlled their homeland at various times, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate approach to this material. The result is an inventive look at some truly unwitting victims of history’s relentless, unforgiving march.

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.

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.

Review by Sion Thomas Markham
37 Uses for a Dead Sheep tells an endearing story centred around the Pamir Kirghiz people, a forced nomadic tribe driven out of their homeland of Ulupamir and chased across the Middle-East and Asia, due to the persecution of the communist in Soviet Russia and later Maoist China. They found sanctuary in the mountains of Afghanistan only to fall foul once again to the Soviet when they invaded the northern part of the country. They eventually found peace in a remote part of Turkey- but only after a strange run in with the “Men in Black”, who offered to helicopter them into Alaska. Instead they chose Turkey, where they have the modern comforts of concrete housing – a far cry from the shacks of yesteryear. But now, as the tribe move into the 21st century, they face a new ideological enemy, an enemy which they cannot physically figh t- globalization. The tribe elders tell their story with character and heart, and of their desire to return to Ulupamir. Unfortunately, their youth do not feel the same kindership with Ulupamir and have a desire to flee else where – Istanbul.
Ben Hopkins’s approach to his subject is completely subtle and quite sweet. He uses both interview technique and reconstructive methods to bring to life the story/struggle of the Pamir people. Ultimately, he allows the tribe to tell their own story, thus Hopkins and his English/Turkish crew are merely a window, a medium for the tribe to convey to the world that they are still here! This work is not sensationalised nor played out with an undertone of wit. These methods normally pander to the audiences cravings to be entertained and thus talked down to, as a opposed to being educated and informed objectively – note Michael Moore’s 2004 Fahrenheit 911 for example. On the contrary, Hopkins’ documentary filmmaking is an objective and mature piece. It serves as both serious anthropogical study of a dying tribe and a secondary historical document told through primary sources.
Hopkins takes us right into the heart of Pamir culture. For example, why yogurt is an integral part of their lifestyle which ultimately, I feel, is part of the underlining thread of the Pamir story. The yogurt, with other references in the context of the narrative, shows an underlining irony of the Pamir people, the fact that Soviet persecution has shaped and carved out the Pamir culture to a degree. I find this aspect, which has been explored within the film text, very interesting. There are traces of this ironic storytelling throughout and one of Hopkins’ reconstructions of the tribes’ people fighting of the Soviets has an air of Soviet Montage cinema.
What I particularly thought made this documentary an accomplished piece is the profound sense of co-operation Hopkins receives from the Pamir tribe. One gets a sense that the tribe places absolute trust in Hopkins and his ability to tell objective truth as a filmmaker, even to the point where Hopkins is allowed to use the tribes’ people in the reconstructions. This goes as far as the tribe’s leader interacting with the filmmaking process as he too dresses up in fake moustache and period costume for a re-enactment

Where I think Hopkins really succeeds is in his conclusion which moved and slightly saddened me. The narrative thus far has taken us over mountains and deserts, but now we move into the 21st century and Hopkins takes us into the city of Istanbul. And it is in the city where the future lies for the Pamir tribe, and with the youth of the tribe. Objectively, Hopkins shows us two possible fates. The first – a young male who works in a leather sweat-shop, alienated from the tribe, humanity and thus a part of the global machine; and the second a young female who grew up in the mountains away from education but who now has a promising career in medicine. But untimely you cannot help but feel that both these examples show the death of a proud tribe. When the elders pass on will the name Pamir Kirghiz pass with them as their youth pass into global individualism?
Hopkins offers us a charismatic tale. If you are looking for an alternative to your cinema adventures I would recommend 37 Uses for Dead Sheep. But please don’t be disappointed if at the end you still don’t know what to do with the rotting sheep carcass in the linen cupboard!

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no pass

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