The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading has a legendary, frequently hilarious Twitter account, so like many of their followers, I guess I was expecting something a bit Monty Pythonesque when they first announced the upcoming YouTube premiere of a filmpoem called I, Sheep, “the profound story of a single ewe and her links to the lives of a farm and farming family.” It turned out however to be a deeply serious, moving, and brilliantly conceived film, influenced by Susannah Ramsay’s conception of the filmpoem as “a poetic composition that interweaves experimental film practices with film-phenomenological concepts and creative self-expression.” Poet Jack Thacker worked closely with the filmmakers—Teresa Murjas, a professor of theater and performance, director James Rattee—and a sheep named Jess, whose POV shots do lend a certain droll charm in character with The MERL’s online profile. As the webpage for the project explains,
One hot summer’s day in 2018, following a workshop at The MERL, Teresa Murjas (Professor of Theatre & Performance at the University of Reading) and filmmaker James Rattee travelled to see Jack and Jess on their remote farm. They brought with them a range of cameras, one of which Jess wore during filming. Multiple perspectives on their interlinking lives and rural environments were captured in the varied gimbal, go-pro and drone footage that was collected.
As the months passed, one creative act would generate another. Roles were performed, film footage was collated, poetry written, and footage edited. Readings were performed, recorded, footage was reshaped, and audio material collated. Sound, imagery and words were progressively layered and synthesised until now, in July 2020, when the filmpoem is about to be shown very for the first time.
It’s no surprise that this kind of prolonged, intensive collaboration should produce such a varied and satisfying film. I imagine it will do well on the film festival circuit, if and when film festivals ever resume. But I’m grateful they chose to release it on the web first.
One minor point of interest to those of us who struggle to connect audiences with poetry: Despite The MERL’s well-executed promotional campaign, and despite more than 153,000 followers on Twitter, the video unfortunately did not go viral, though it has garnered a respectable 1,227 views. But getting people to watch a 16-minute poetry film was never going to be easy. And merely creating viral content is not why they made the film in the first place:
I, Sheep is one of a cluster of creative works generated for a project at The MERL entitled Making, Using and Enjoying: The Museum of the Intangible (funded by Arts Council England). This explored intersections between the Museum’s tangible holdings, the idea of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and creative and digital practices. As outlined by UNESCO, ‘cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’ Responsively, The Museum of the Intangible project began by bringing people together around things, and then drew on their living experiences and relationships to explore, through creative practice, the significance of ICH within a museum context.