Indie Documentaries Star

Iceland, sheep pen, rettir

Waiting for the Sheep (photo: Hansueli Krapf, creative commons license)

Last night at the Trenton Film Festival 2016, saw three short documentaries under the heading Ageless Friends.  Over a period of five days, the festival shows 55 films from 16 countries—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. Films submitted for consideration are selected by a panel of jurors (who must have been very busy!) and the festival culminates in an awards ceremony for “bests” in various categories, including audience favorite.

First up was a 7-minute film from the U.K., North Coast 500, which follows three cyclists on a tour through the beautiful Scottish Highlands. The scenery is magnificent.

A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition

It was the second and third films that competed on my ballot for “audience favorite.” The second, A Thousand Autumns, is a 17-minute U.S. film directed by Bob Krist. It follows the efforts on one of several groups of Icelandic farmers who each fall use ponies and dogs to herd their sheep from remote highland pastures to winter grazing lands closer to their farms and the coast. This is a tradition (called the “réttir”) that has been maintained, as the title implies, for ten centuries.

It’s a massive effort, involving the whole community, and family members who’ve moved to the city return for it. Over the summer, the sheep from various farms become all mixed up together, and the farmers have created a the clever method of separating hundreds of animals into individual herds. A round pen is surrounded by pie-shaped wedges, one for each farmer. The sheep are let into the central pen where people await, ready to sort them and push them into the correct farm’s wedge.

Filmmaker Krist first became committed to documenting this herculean effort in the mid-1980s, when on a photography assignment for National Geographic. He knew the separating pen would be a strong visual, which he calls a “sheep pizza.” In those days, he would have had to film it with an expensive and scary (for the sheep) helicopter; for this film, he used a drone.

A Full Measure of Devotion

The hour-long third film, Ageless Friends (trailer), opening in the U.S. in June, is from Netherlands documentarian Marijn Poels. As a teenager, Maarten Vossen adopted the grave of U.S. soldier Private First Class James E. Wickline, one of 8301 U.S. soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery. Wickline participated in Operation Market Garden, an unsuccessful Allied effort to overtake Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley. Vossen became determined to learn more about “his” soldier, a young man who died to restore his and his country’s freedom.


Ultimately, he learns that Wickline was one of some 1200 new recruits brought into the 82d airborne’s 508th Parachute Infantry Division to replace soldiers lost at Normandy, only 800 of whom survived. Evidence (Wickline’s documented injuries) led the military to conclude his parachute did not open, and he was killed on the first day of the operation, on his first jump into battle.

For Wickline to have died without ever having actually participated in the war dismays Vossen, who traces Wickline’s roots and connections in West Virginia and, working with a county commissioner there, succeeds in having a bridge named for him. That this young Dutchman, 70 years later and living thousands of miles away, cares so much about one of our forgotten fallen is extraordinarily moving, an ultimate expression of unselfish love.