Life and death on an Israeli sheep farm

Humans have shared their lives with sheep since at least 8500 BC. BC, before we lived with horses, cats, chickens or ducks, before the invention of fenced fields, writing or the plow. Sheep are sweet and cute (whether through selective breeding or natural affinity), and the long process of their domestication means they now rely on us for food and care. This can make it hard not to form a bond.

Omer Daida’s documentary “Herd” follows Na’ama, a young girl who helps her family tend to sheep in a rocky, remote part of southern Israel. Na’ama is an animal lover. She strokes the sheep that approach her and does not kill the mice, she tries to catch them and then rear them. She used to have rabbits, but one of her friends left the door unlocked. Every Monday, his father, Itamar, drives lambs and kids to Haifa, where they are slaughtered. For Na’ama, this creates a contradiction between her love for the natural world and her love for her father and wishes to help him with their family’s work. It is a constant tension, but perhaps not fully understood.

Often this tension expresses itself in an outright obsession with life and death. Na’ama draws portraits of sheep that left the farm: Zehava, a lamb that was born with jaundice, was left with jaundice and died; Rat, a “huge gray lamb” who escaped “somewhere in the world” but who she says is also most likely dead. Itamar is a gruff and uncompromising man. He often pushes her, gently, like a lamb, in and out of the enclosures. “That’s how they are born,” he tells her, when she watches over her first lambing. And later, about a skinny, sick lamb that won’t make it: “He’s going to die. “Nope!” Na’ama said. “You too will die,” he told her. “Everyone dies.”

Daida always intended to make a film about life and death, she told me by e-mail. She lived five years in the same region as the farm, and her initial idea was to film, during a whole winter, a truck driver transporting cows to the slaughterhouse. Then, while working as a waitress at a local restaurant, she met Na’ama and Itamar, who had come to dinner. When they told her they operated a sheep farm, she realized that “that’s the story I wanted to tell”. Daida’s style is a kind of studious, invisible immersion, and she manages to capture moments of intense, but not extraordinary, family intimacy. She took three years to film the documentary, often spending time on the farm without a camera to help the family acclimate to her discreet eye.

In “Herd”, the sheep, inevitably, begin to form a kind of parallel family to Na’ama and Itamar. They are also pragmatic. For both, it is everyday how life and death coexist. But sheep don’t have the family rituals people have. Once her lamb is born, the mother sheep may lick the newborn if she feels nice or, more likely, walk away. People have to be parents. Daida told me that when the family first saw the movie, Na’ama turned to her father and said, “You’re the bad guy in the movie. The director does not see it so clearly. “My opinion and relationship with Itamar changed during the process of making the film, and I think audiences go through it as well while watching,” she told me. “He treats Na’ama like an adult, letting her discover and feel the world, its raw and beautiful parts.”