Friday, April 29, 2016

Vets (and sheep) in the movies: Rams

Two of  the stars of Rams.
Veterinary cinema is niche, with veterinary themes in mainstream movies few and far between. Many – possibly even some veterinarians – might be relieved about this. But now and then a film with veterinary themes pops up, which one might feel compelled to see.

The Icelandic so-called “tragicomedy”, Rams, is a recent addition to the veterinary cinematic archives.  The story revolves around Gummi (SIGURĐUR SIGURJÓNSSON) and Kiddi (THEODÓR JÚLÍUSSON), feuding bachelor brothers living on neighbouring sheep properties, who have not spoken for 40 years. Now and then they send each other a note, carried in the mouth of their sheep dog, but relations are more than a tad frosty.

Both are proud of their rams who carry an ancient lineage and regularly win awards. The town veterinarian, played by CHARLOTTE BÖVING, judges the awards.

But after one particularly bitter competition, Gummi observes what he believes are signs of scrapie in Kiddi’s prize Ram. Scrapie is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy or Mad Cow Disease. It leads to incurable degenerative neurological disease which is fatal. Gummi goes home that night and, in a scene reminiscent of The Crying Game, washes his prize ram in the bath as if he can scrub away the scrapie (this doesn’t work).

This will not get rid of scrapie, or any other TSE.
The town veterinarian, once rewarding the farmers for their excellent stock, must carry out an order to cull all sheep on the properties. I must admit I didn’t quite get the “omedy” part of this “tragicomedy”. I could feel the vet’s anguish, the despair of both men – deeply attached to their sheep – was evident and the absolute heartbreak of culling one’s stock to contain an infectious disease was clear. Its a movie that haunted me and I'll admit for therapeutic reasons I had to dig for a bit of background info.

Director Grímur Hákonarson knew it well. His dad used to work for the Ministry of Agriculture.

“One of the hardest things my father ever had to face in his professional life was making decisions about whether certain livestock should be slaughtered – or not – in the event of an outbreak of disease,” he said.

The town veterinarian, Katrin (played by Charlotte Boving) judging the ram competition.
Analysis of reviews suggests one aspect of the movie that some deemed comic was the men’s attachment to their respective flocks – something unremarkable and not necessarily comic if you know people who look after animals. But Hákonarson is making the point that such strong emotional connection with animals is very rare in modern society.

“…people like my main characters Gummi and Kiddi are dying out,” he said. Hákonarson feels this is disappointing because he wants the eccentricity to live on. I think its disappointing as one wants good animal husbandry to live on.

Scrapie is a big concern in Iceland. The disease originally spread to Iceland via British sheep in the late 19th century, and has not yet been eradicated. Hákonarson’s own niece had scrapie diagnosed in her flock, and he described the profound psychological impact it had on her and her family (and that's not even adding the consideration of the welfare of affected animals).

For the characters in his movie, this impact was compounded by isolation. As a companion animal veterinarian I am rarely faced with the need to cull or kill a single animal for the protection of others, although there are cases where this may be deemed the best solution (or the lesser of two evils). This is a concern more commonly faced by colleagues working with livestock. The impact on veterinarians, farmers and of course livestock is huge.

On a happier note, I learned that in pre-production for the movie, auditions were held for sheep, which sounds like a lot of fun.

“It turns out that sheep’s temperaments vary greatly between farms,” Hákonarson said. “On one farm we went to, the sheep weren’t at all docile, and they ran away from us as soon as we tried approaching them. But after a lot of searching we ended up at a farm called Halldórsstaðir where Begga, the farmer there, treats her sheep with love and affection.  The rams there came right over to us and gave us a nudge as if they wanted a little scratch behind the ears”. 

“These sheep were great to work with, in fact even easier than working with actors.  A local farmer from Budardalur, Magnus Skarphédinsson, was our sheep trainer, and he did an amazing job.”

I won’t lie. I found this film a bit grim and depressing, and it wasn’t the best choice of movie to watch after a fairly full-on clinical shift. I may have involuntarily cried "NO!" at the ending, and may have copped a glare from the colleague whom I invited out to watch a "comedy-tragedy". Still, it is nice to see veterinary themes being dealt with on the big screen and learn about ovine auditions.