4-Star Film Review by David Whetstone, The Journal

A documentary about tenant sheep farmers in Upper Teesdale could be an unlikely hit at film festivals this summer

Sheep on BailA scene from Addicted to Sheep

The Oscars will be doled out in Hollywood this weekend, rewarding the best cinema releases of 2014, but it’s a fair bet none of the judges will have seen a film like Addicted to Sheep.

The feature-length documentary charting a year in the life of the Hutchinson family, hill farmers in Upper Teesdale, had its first cinema screening this week at the Gala in Durham with many who appear in the film seeing it for the first time.

The film shows the beautiful sights and sounds of this upland landscape through the seasons while taking the viewer uncomfortably close to a lot of muck and slop – things the farmers live with every day.

French director Magali Pettier, who grew up on a farm, originally planned to contrast English and French farming families. As she explained in Durham, “financial reasons and time” meant she had to revise her plans, focusing instead on the County Durham family recommended to her by Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services.

You sense she recognised the Hutchinsons as cinema gold. In the end she spent four years with Tom, Kay and their three children, Jack, Esme and Hetty, who are now aged 13, 12 and 11 respectively. They are the stars of this film, a close and loving family whose daily routine would make most of us shiver.

We see them up and out in all weathers and at the crack of dawn. We laugh as Hetty – a much younger Hetty – struggles to close barn doors and, as a tethered cow does what cows do, murmurs mournfully that she wishes they’d pick up their own mess.

Read the full review here

Film review from Film Blogger Sheila Seacroft. We love it!

Addicted to Sheep Screen Grab

‘Swaledale sheep are one of the most addictive substances known to man’ declares Tom Hutchinson near the beginning of this absorbing and handsome film. Tom is a sheep farmer, living with his wife Kay and three children in the remote northern Pennines at the top of Teesdale. For 80 minutes we share their lives through the seasons, this remarkable and yet very ordinary family.

Their passion is breeding the perfect Swaledale sheep (‘It’s a vocation, isn’t it?’), and we learn a lot about the beasts –the ideal colouring, head width, horn curvature, their apparent death wish, and, in a delightful monologue by Jack, son of the family, the intricacies of the breeding process ensuring that the wrong ewe (‘yow’) doesn’t get herself tupped by the wrong tup.

The landscape is magnificently captured, from monochrome winter with its almost abstract curves and shadows to shimmering summer, the soundtrack almost entirely natural: wind, birds, sheep, human voice. The sheep stand in their woolly rows eyeballing you with their mysterious angular pupils, nosey and ready to move like a weary group of extras awaiting their director’s instructions. Then there are the interiors, the cluttered, busy kitchen seen from outside the window, lovely contemplative images like turkeys hanging against a wall ready for Christmas, or the steamy-breathed early morning cowshed. But human life is never absent for long. Mother and children career down a snowy slope on their sledge, a quad bike zips along the contours of the land, experts and helpers arrive to check pregnancies and help with shearing, animals are fed, children laugh. It’s a fascinating mixture of old and new farming lore, where on one hand moss or cobwebs are applied to a trimmed horn to stop the bleeding (I recently saw this very use of cobwebs to stem bleeding by an elderly peasant in a 20s Georgian film) and a portable ultrasound machine reveals which sheep are having twins.

Here the school run is a plod up a muddy lane, where the news for the girls is not a trip to the cinema but that their own personal yows are both going to have twins. There’s a lot of parenting going on – the sheep sometimes need a bit of encouragement, but the humans are exemplary, and amidst everything else the film’s about a wonderfully secure, enviably balanced family life. The kids help muck out the cows, feed the pony, and watch and learn as their mother eviscerates one of their turkeys for Christmas or their father delivers a dead lamb. This is a grim sequence, unsparing of details as first Kay then Tom are elbow deep inside the sheep, while the camera quietly observes the tension and sheer physical slog of it. But there’s joy too, in shared activities, and the cheering thing is that the children really appreciate what they’ve got. All the pupils in the small village school are from farming stock, and most wish to be farmers themselves. Even those who may not, like the Hutchinson’s eldest, Esme, who’s ‘into art’, clearly cherish their landscape, as she talks articulately about the colours of the summer pasture, sitting in the sheep-nibbled grass to sketch the view across the valley.

What drove Magali Pettier, herself from a farming background in Brittany, to make this film was her curiosity about the status of tenant farmers, apparently something now unknown in France. How can people work so hard and be committed to land they don’t own? The Hutchinsons speak frankly but philosophically about their lack of financial security, with only a 15-year lease on the land, in this age when property possession is seemingly one of the few ways to secure any kind of comfortable secure future for retirement. But they’re so full of life, that seems a long way off. They’re not alone – all the white-painted cottages on their landscape are rented similarly from the Barnard Estate, but there’s some comfort in the fact that the Barnard family are good landlords, allowing their tenants freedom to do their best for their land, and Lord Barnard himself turns up as genial prize-giver at the show, where the family win yet more rosettes to hang on their kitchen wall.

I saw this film at a special premiere on a starry winter’s night in a community centre Middleton in Teesdale, in company with many participants in the film, the schoolchildren, some alarmingly grown, lolling to watch on the floor in front of the screen. For most of the audience this was day-to-day life as they knew it; for us townies who only walk the footpaths and take pictures of the scenery it’s something remarkable, unthinkable yet in many ways enviable, above all heroic.

Week Nine – Tales from the Edit – Cinema test and our first festival entries

In the last few weeks, we have watched Addicted to Sheep on many screens (TV, desktop computers, laptops…) and each time it feels like a different experience.

 Cinema Addicted to Sheep

For our final test before we said ‘that’s it we are happy with the sound mix and the colour grading’ we watched it on a Cinema screen.

Cinema Addicted to Sheep

The technician did all the set-up for us to make sure we got the screening format right and the sound levels spot on.

 Cinema Addicted to Sheep

After 4 years of hard work, it felt like the first time we could really sit back and relax, and enjoy taking in the scenery, appreciate the sounds and music.

 Cinema Addicted to Sheep

We have watched it many times, but this time it felt like we were all enjoying watching the completed film as viewers. Secretly, we all had a little tear in our eye!

 Cinema Addicted to Sheep

We have now entered a few high profile film festivals. Fingers crossed they like it as much as we do! It’s the first step to taking our film out to the world. We have a few busy weeks ahead of us! As well as cutting a new trailer, we will be applying to more festivals as well as arranging a ‘sneak preview’ for all those who have supported us to get to this stage. Very exciting times ahead! Watch this space!

Week Seven – Tales from the Edit – Watching the film on the big screen

  Cinema Addicted to Sheep

After many weeks of editing and watching Addicted to Sheep on computer screens, we decided it was time to see it on a big screen.

  Cinema Addicted to Sheep

The thoughts going through our minds were: ‘woo, beautiful, powerful, very intense, so sweet, out of focus, too dark, too light….’ and it goes on. Basically, it was amazing to finally watch it in the cinema but impossible not to mark up adjustments to make it even better.

  Cinema Addicted to Sheep

On a small screen it looks powerful but when watching it on a big screen, we realised how important it was to strike the right balance between making the pace of the film engaging but not too fast and not too slow.  Sound draws you in and engages too.

  Cinema Addicted to Sheep

So we went back in the edit and adjusted a few things so the story and the pace of the film is as memorable to watch on a TV screen as it is on a Cinema screen. After another round of edits, we decided to watch it again on the big screen and check we didn’t have all these thoughts in our mind again ‘out of focus, too light, too fast, too slow’ but instead only thought ‘woo, beautiful, touching, funny…’ and we did! So the next step is the final colour grading!

Week Six – Tales from the Edit – Showing a rough cut to the family

Tom and Kay watching the rough cut of Addicted to Sheep

Filming for us is a joint venture between subject and crew.  Before the start of filming, we discussed why we wanted to make this film and the story we wanted to tell.  4 years on, and with many twists and turns in between we hoped the final film conveyed the original themes and sensibility.

After lots of time in the edit, the team decided it was finally time to show the family a rough cut. We thought the film was at a stage that would give them a good enough idea of how the finished film would be. We wanted to make sure that they felt we portrayed their way of life and that of the community accurately and with integrity.

We were nervous.   ‘Are they going to like it?  What do we do, if they don’t?’

Luckily for us they did!  They laughed all the way through.

With their positive feedback in mind, we went back into the edit and knew that whatever we did next could only make a better film.  With colour grading, music and the final sound mix to be completed we’re nearly there.

Week Five – Tales from the Edit – A day in the Sound Studio with Chris Watson

Sound-Studio Addicted to Sheep

It’s been a rare treat for us to spend a day in the sound studio with Chris Watson, one of the world’s leading sound recordists. When we first heard Chris talk about his craft at a Royal Television Society event he took off his shoes and paced the floor in his socks. He’s very sensitive to ambient noise. Chris watched the rough cut of Addicted to Sheep and then suggested we have a coffee to ‘rest our ears’.

In the sound mix studio

Over the next few hours we talked about engaging the viewer through sound. Silence helps. Taking out rather than filling up.  Allowing for breathing space, moments of reflection and light and shade.

Sound-Studio Addicted to Sheep

The North Pennines where we filmed is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and we wanted to establish a strong sense of place. Chris talked about creating a richer sense of perspective.  We don’t always need to hear what we see on screen. We cut out the quad bike, created a sense of ebb and flow between skylarks and curlews and then heard snow falling on the washing line. It’s delicate artful work.

We left the studio and heard the deep hum of the coffee machine in a way we’d never noticed before.