December 7, 2023

Film review: Cycle – Sheep washing is a sport I don’t understand




76 mins

Sheep washing doesn’t sound like something you can do competitively. I read in the Edinburgh Film Festival programme that Cycle was based around the annual sheep washing festival in Hasanpasa in Turkey and had to get a ticket. I imagined shepherds racing against the clock as they shampooed their sheep. Maybe there were extra points on offer for specially styled fleeces or for cleaning behind the ears. But how was it judged?

Written, produced and directed by Dervis Zaim, I watched the film expecting to learn the rules and maybe add a new event to my list of must-watch annual sports. There’s a bit of a gap between the British Grand Prix and the Lord’s Test, a spot of Turkish sheep washing might be ideal. But unfortunately, even after having watched Cycle, in which two sheep washing festivals are shown, I have no more understanding of what it is than before.

The film depicts life in a small Turkish village. Many of the men are shepherds and the director deliberately chose real-life shepherds to play the characters. Their weather-beaten faces and affection for the animals make the decision a good one. The film depicts the usual problem of rural life and one of the shepherds decides to move to the city to make more money. But he wouldn’t miss the annual sheep washing festival.

It’s odd. I regard myself as something of a sportsman – I can watch most sports and quickly pick up what is happening. I need boast no more about my prowess in this area after mentioning that I am one of the few who understand cricket. Yet sheep washing still has me beaten. What is most peculiar is that there doesn’t seem to be any sheep washing involved. If anything it is quite the contrary – the most effort is put into dying the sheep bright brown using pigment ground from a special rock. Then all the shepherds congregate at the top of a hill above a river. One at a time they run down the hill followed by their flock of sheep. They charge into the river fully dressed and the sheep follow. I expected some vigorous cleaning of the brown sheep to take place next, but that was the end. Judges award points for – for what I have no idea. My best guess is it might be for how far the first sheep jumps into the water. Or maybe how many sheep go into the water after the shepherd. But neither of those systems would need judges to award points. Maybe it was the style with which they ran down the hill. But then why paint the sheep brown?

Cycle won the Grand Jury Prize at the Istanbul Film Festival this year. Judges must have liked its attractive shots of Turkey through the seasons and the way it records a traditional lifestyle that is disappearing. It shows the shepherds using plants to heal sheep and contrasts their oneness with nature with the local quarry owners who are happy to go hunting and cut off the villagers’ source of dye.

Great films make you think about things that you haven’t considered before. Like – how do you get a sheep to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go? Sweet talk and food? No, the answer is to lift its back legs as though you are taking part in a half-sheep half-human wheelbarrow race. Now that would be a sport I could understand.

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