Monday, November 09, 2009

The Shepherds of Berneray

The Shepherds of Berneray
a film by Allen Moore & Jack Shea
(Canada, 1981, 54 minutes)

filmed and edited by Allen Moore
conceived and produced by Jack Shea
narrated by Finlay J. MacDonald
executive produced by Robert Gardner
principal characters: Kate Dix, John Ferguson, Angus Beag MacLeod, Angus and Chirsty Ann Munro, John and Christine Munro

The original Ram's Head, Live - from Berneray!

Last night I was among a handful of cineastes that were treated to a special screening of Allen Moore and Jack Shea's 1981 documentary The Shepherds of Berneray at the Hexagon on N. Charles Street. The event was the latest offering in Miguel Sabagol's continuing "Free Wednesday 16mm Film Series" at the Hexagon, which the Baltimore City Paper named "Best Multi-Purpose Space" in its 2009 Best of Baltimore issue.

Allen Moore

I only heard about the screening because, in addition to being an award-winning cinematographer for Ken Burns and a well-respected film instructor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Allen Moore is also a regular patron of the Enoch Pratt Central Library, where he often pops in to check out titles from our 16mm film collection. So when he mentioned last week that he was screening one of his films at the Hexagon, I had to give props to a filmmaker and lenser that I greatly admire. I wasn't disappointed. At the risk of sounding like a hyperbolic fanboy, I think film historians will rightly rank Moore's cinematography alongside that of the all-time great lensmen. And, beyond knowing how to frame and present "pretty pictures," Moore is also an accomplished director and editor, at least from I've seen of his own films.

Small wonder then that the film - made with funds from The Film Study Center, Harvard University, The Highlands and Islands Development Board of Scotland, and The Scottish Arts Council - won a CINE Golden Eagle, a Red Ribbon at the American Film Festival, and a Special Mention of the Jury at Cinema du Reel. Soon after completing The Shepherds of Berneray, which was shot over 12 months from May 1978 to 1979 and took another 18 months to edit, Moore received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Filmmaking from December 1982 to November 1983.

So what and where is Berneray? Quickly searching the Internet for a Wikipedia article, I learned that Berneray (Scottish Gaelic: Beàrnaraidh, from Old Norse for "Bjorn's island") is a small island to the north of North Uist in the Sound of Harris, Scotland.

It is one of fifteen inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, measuring 2.5 acres with a population (as of May 2009) under 124 permanent residents. It is famed for its rich and colourful history which has attracted much tourism - including Charles, the Prince of Wales, who in 1987 visited the island to live a normal Berneray life as a "crofter" (small-scale farmer). (Prince Charles lived and worked with a crofter for one week and his visit spawned the 1991 television documentary, A Prince Among Islands; he returned to the island in 1999 to formally open the causeway connecting Berneray and Otternich on North Uist). Its main industries are fishing and sheep, but because seafood is a valued export to the mainland, the island's lifeblood is its sheep. Hence the focus of Moore's remarkable film, which documents one year in the life of the sheep and their Gaelic-speaking (and singing) keepers, split into seasonal chapters.

Berneray: Shaped like the headstock on a Fender guitar

The documentary begins and ends with an elderly woman (Kate Dix) speaking in her native Gaelic (thank God for subtitles!) outside her croft, a perfect bookending of the year's journal. Moore's print looked absolutely pristine and flawless, with nary a scratch on the screen. Shooting with a non-synch sound Bolex 16mm camera, he was able to follow the shepherds and their flock through every nook and cranny of the island, capturing both its natural beauty (the gorgeous blue skyline and shoreline in summer, the blooming flora in the spring) and the raw unpredictability of its stormy, wind-swept winters.

I liked his editing touches, little things like the footage at the island's church where the minister reads "The lord is my shepherd" to the shepherds, and the sheep point-of-view shots when they are being dipped into an anti-tic bath.

My fellow Pratt librarian (and fellow film geek) Marc Sober was also in attendance, and I knew the avowed vegetarian was in for a rough viewing experience during the no-holds-barred footage depicting the inevitable killing and eating of sheep (the islanders eat a lot of mutton - they save the tasty lobster for export to the mainland and the $$ it promises in return). As was the Maryland Film Festival's Eric Hatch, another vegetarian I spotted, sitting in front of Marc Sober (I'm pretty sure I saw Eric looking away during the more grisly segments!).

Moore leaves nothing out as far as documenting the sometimes harsh lifestyle entailing by living off sheep on a remote island. There's the birth and death of sheep, branding the flock by cutting off part of the ear, the inevitable wooly-bully sheep shearing, even an "old school" cirmcumcision of a ram by an old-timer who bites off the skins and spits it out! (I'm glad I ate before the screening and not after!).

Remarkable as the natural beauty of Berneray and Moore's cinematography are, the film is more than just a visual record of a remote land and people. Key to its translation of Berneray's culture is the poetic language of its people, which Moore captures not only in the Gaelic monologues of grande dame Kate Dix (who, Moore said afterwards, unfortunately passed away before the film's completion), but in the native folk songs of Mary MacAskill, Duncan MacKinnon and Christine Munro, and the poetry of the Bard of Berneray, Duncan MacLeod of Besdaire (1906-1980).

"Moore has become renowned in filmmaking circles for the way he portrays the intimate relationship of a culture to its environment, a vision he calls primarily poetic," wrote Baltimore Sun critic Linell Smith. He was referring to Moore's award-winning 1990 film Black Water (co-directed with Charlotte Cerf), which documented an artisanal fishing village in northeastern Brazil struggling to survive the impact of industrial water pollution, but he could just as easily have been talking about The Shepherds of Berneray. For Moore is an ethnographer as well as a photographer and documentarian, one just as interested in understanding the best way to present a foreign culture as a lensman is interested in the best way to present images to the human eye. Like his camera, Moore's eye is unflinching, direct, and true. And the impressions he leaves on our eyes are indelible.

Click here to watch segments from The Shepherds of Berneray (Vimeo).

Related Links:
Isle of Berneray website
The Shepherds of Berneray @ Internet Movie Database
Scottish Screen Archives
Allen Moore's MICA bio
Allen Moore @ Florentine Films
Allen Moore Films on Vimeo
Black Water @ Icarus Films

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Blogger Volatile Hermit said...

Hi there
i come from berneary and i have seen this documentry about a hundred times. If you need any questions answered about berneray and its people im more than happy to answer some for you (might i add that wikipedia isnt all that true).

12:25 PM  
Blogger direcleit said...

A new website has recently been launched by Comunn Eachdraidh Bheàrnaraigh:


9:45 AM  

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