Reflecting on Diego Acosta’s pastoral travelogue Under the Sky Shelter, Ben Nicholson responds with a series of vignettes as part of a series of texts commissioned around new films in this year’s festival programme.
“Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pip.”
– Old sheep-counting system derived from Brythonic Celtic languages
The counting of sheep is a trope related to sleep that can be traced back nearly a thousand years and likely existed far earlier. In Petrus Alphonsi’s 12th century collection of fables, Disciplina Clericalis – which itself took inspiration from older Islamic sources – one chapter involves a tired storyteller. He told of a man who needed to ferry thousands of sheep across a river, two by two. The ploy was that while the fictional man went back and forth in the king’s imagination, the storyteller could get some sleep. It is a humorous play on the dynamic we are still familiar with today; the culturally ubiquitous axiom that tallying sheep helps you drift away to the land of nod. Of course, this association makes sense: when people grazed their livestock on common land, one of the last tasks before bed each night would have been to count the heads of their entire herd, stifling a yawn as they went.
The man conveying livestock across the landscapes of Diego Acosta’s luminous monochrome documentary Under the Sky Shelter is Don Cucho. A 65-year-old muleteer with a thousand sheep under his charge, he corrals them over meadows, through ravines, up mountainsides, and – yes – across rivers, with the help of several fellow riders and trusty canine companions. Often far from civilisation, this is a portrait that chimes with a disappearing way of life. In the 18th-century, the nature of such acts of transhumance was altered when economic changes saw a disconnect grow between the owners and transporters of livestock. As colonial infrastructure was imposed on the Andean region, market forces began to reshape the role and schedule of the muleteer. They were transformed from being someone whose routine was begat by inherited pastoral practice to being controlled by the purse-strings of commerce. Acosta’s film feels like a glimpse back to an age when time was more malleable, more fluid.
That Under the Sky Shelter immediately feels like peering into some half-forgotten past is perhaps as much due to its material form as the antiquated practices it portrays and evokes. Rugged men may sleep beneath the starry canopy of the night sky and sheep may ford streams and scale jagged rockfaces, but it is in the inherent aesthetic qualities of tone and texture – and experimental manipulations of process – that Acosta’s grainy 16mm photography seems to transport the audience through time. It helps that the high contrast of the colourless film stock erodes detail; faces and forms dissipate in inky shadows even in compositions defined by bright sunlight, meaning that features that could anchor the viewer to a specific now are often ill-defined. Elsewhere, time is elided though transition – either via the typical surreptitious omission of the editing process, or in more noticeable jump cuts that mimic the impact of missing frames of celluloid.
In addition, Acosta occasionally toys with the footage – it is sped up so that wisps of fog maraud down mountainsides or hundreds of sheep fill a pen in seconds. The most memorable instance of manipulation is in a moment towards the end of the film when a waterfall flows up into the sky. It is an eerily mesmerising picture in a film replete with them, and forms part of one of the dream sequences that puncture Don Cucho’s transhumance. When the sun is down, the pale shapes of sheep mundanely ambling towards the camera become spectres drifting through the dark. Reflected lights in the animals’ eyes take on the visage of supernatural watchers in the night. A passage near the end of the film dares to introduce colour which, perhaps in the same way that the monochrome determines an impression of the past, creates the sense of a fleeting dream of the present, or a jolt from the future.
Such hypnagogic reveries are not confined to the night-time. Through exquisite deployment of sound, the Acosta and his team bleed such hypnotic qualities into the entire film. From an early sequence in which a locomotive is heard but never seen, the interplay between action and audio is continually shifting, wrong-footing you. In one scene the soundtrack may be naturalistic, like gentle birdsong. In the next, it might reflect what is on screen but be slightly too loud or like it was fashioned in a studio – footage of sheep scrambling up a scree-covered incline is accompanied by the booming rocks of an avalanche. In some instances, the sound will not match at all or continues from a prior, unrelated shot. The effect is of unreality permeating the entire endeavour. Far from feeling like an observational documentary punctuated by flashes of weird, Under the Sky Shelter feels like a dream, an ahistorical trance, in which reality sometimes rears its head but some ancient truth feels ever-present.
Ben Nicholson is a film writer and curator specialising in film, experimental film, and artists’ moving image whose words have featured in Sight and Sound, Little White Lies, Notebook and elsewhere. He is the lead shorts review at The Film Verdict and the founder of the critical and curatorial platform ALT/KINO.