Notes on cinema inspired by historical images by Dan Williams
This article considers the recent film ‘Rams’ directed by Grímur Hákonarson and links the ideas conveyed by this movie to some images from our collection.
The film tells the story of two brothers who are sheep farmers in a remote part of Iceland. They own adjoining farms, Kiddi with the family farmhouse and Gummi next door, but they have not spoken to each other for 40 years. The theme of sibling rivalry is foregrounded, as we see a local competition in which Gummi gains second place for his ram, only to discover he has been narrowly defeated by his brother.
For the most part, we remain with Gummi, a sympathetic character, whilst his brother is seen to be more and more emotionally disturbed. An enigmatic back story emerges to explain how the brothers arrived at this situation. However, we are mainly drawn into their present plight, which is transformed as it is discovered that Kiddi’s flock is fatally infected with sharpie, a problem first discovered by Gummi following the competition. This discovery does not suggest sour grapes on the part of Gummi, but is the revelation of a terrible problem which affects the whole community, since it is decided that all sheep must be killed. This is heartbreaking for characters who seem to talk more to their sheep than to each other. Yet, the film gives sentiment a hard edge, as we see in particular Gummi’s toughness and resolution in the face of this disaster.
The film is suffused with the idea of sheep farming as an all-consuming way of life, a practice that has defined these characters and their community for an indefinite period. The picture below from ancient Persia also conveys this with two bearded men, just like in the film, walking with two prize rams. In this case they are people from various nations under control of Achaemenid Empire bringing tributes to the King.
In ‘Rams’ there is some humour which mixes well with the serious content. When one character asks why the brothers never married, we are told there was a shortage of women, although Kiddi managed to alienate some potential partners. The story conveys very well the strength of characters living alone, as we observe Gummi’s solitary life in particular, but also the all-consuming obsession with their livelihood, which determines their response to the edict that all the sheep must be killed. The reverence for their flock contrasts with a more clinical, commercial approach to their business. This passion for their flock calls to mind the way animals and, rams in particular, have been given cultural significance in ancient art as seen in this Hittite rams relief, from Alaca, Turkey. Despite the status afforded the animals in this image they are significantly a symbol of man’s control.
Meanwhile in the picture below we see how the ram is deified in a Roman bust depicting Jupiter Ammon.
While very different from the ideas prevailing in the above pictures, the film is complex in its depiction of male-animal relations, avoiding sentimentality, but also going beyond the idea that the sheep farming is merely a business. From an apparently quite minimalistic storyline a more sublime and epic sense of drama develops in which sibling relationships and relationships between the individual, the community and legal authorities are dramatised very powerfully. Any idea that the film is predominantly a comedy seems misplaced. Landscape is a key element from the beginning with the Icelandic scenery expressing the idea of a sublime relationship between the characters and their environment. In this case the film needs to be seen to be appreciated, but the image below of ruins of Thingvellir, where the annual Viking parliament met, provides some comparison with the idea of nature’s looming presence in Icelandic history.
Ultimately ‘Rams’ is the kind of film where we can imagine and yearn for a narrative resolution, whilst also understanding the pull towards tragedy. That the film ultimately synthesises these tendencies is indicative of its commitment to the power of unresolved imagery in the present, an observation which may be clearer, if you see the film’s very emotional final shot.
Dan’s new film study class ‘Introduction to British Cinema’ will start at WEA from the New Year (2017).
The course is for everyone with an interest in cinema who would like to study the subject in greater depth.