Manuel von Stürler's Winter Nomads is a charming documentary about a pair of Swiss shepherds who travel with their flock of 800 sheep over great distances for a few months every year to allow the sheep to graze naturally so that they produce high quality meat.
Pascal is the older and more experienced shepherd, and accompanying him is Carole, a young lady who acts as his assistant. Audiences get to follow them on their long journey of 'transhumance', along with their sheep, dogs and donkeys. We see the pair being greeted by their old friends but abused by some angry farmers. And at the end of the journey, Pascal awaits anxiously to hear of the buyers' comments about the sheep they have reared. This very old tradition is clearly one that is little-known and no longer practised by many, and so it is very worthwhile to make a visual record of it. For the viewers, the film offers a great opportunity to take a look at a fascinating way of living that is very different from their own.
The cinematography by Camille Cottagnaud captures the always beautiful scenery, whether it is a vast snowfield, a long stretch of grassy area or a delightful country town. The score of warm folk music compliments the visuals wonderfully. The main characters of Pascal and Carole are likeable and their interactions are interesting. Pascal complains about what Carole has done frequently during the day; while at night, they sit around the camp fire talking and laughing. There is one lovely scene showing the pair and some friends having fondue in a moonlit forest. Many viewers will be keen to find out if the relationship between them is purely a master-and-protégé one.
The animals themselves are also stars of the movie. It appears that every one of the sheep has a name, and in Pascal's words, 'they are all pretty'. The dogs are always warm and helpful, and the little puppy that Carole carries inside her thick coat is undeniably cute. Even the donkeys get a share of the screen time, and it is particularly amusing when the donkey named Figaro goes the wrong way and gets told off by Pascal.
Some of the scenes feel staged, in particular the one where a young girl seemingly appears out of nowhere and starts talking to Pascal about the tradition of transhumance. The reason for including this scene is obviously to allow the background and purpose of the nomadic lifestyle to be explained.
Winter Nomads is a gentle and pleasant documentary, and watching it on the big screen is especially enjoyable because of the stunning scenery. It is the record of a rare way of living that is immensely challenging but in the end, also incredibly rewarding.
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