CATEGORIES Documentary, Foreign Language, Independent, Tribeca, Cinematical Indie, Tribeca Film Festival, Cinematical37 Uses for a Dead Sheep is a charming, engagingly-constructed documentary about the last century in the existence of the Pamir Kirghiz, during which time outside forces forced the tribe from their ancestral homeland in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. Originally, they lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, wandering across the borders between the old Soviet Union, China, and Afghanistan. As politics and conflicts intensified, however, first the Chinese, then the Soviets tried to control the movements of the Kirghiz, the latter through violence and imprisonment. Eventually, after settling first in Afghanistan and then in the distinctly un-Pamir valleys of Pakistan, the Kirghiz asked for help from abroad. As ethnic Turks, the choice between offers from the United States (the Kirghiz would be flown to Alaska) and Turkey was not a difficult one, and the Kirghiz now make their home in Ulupamir Village, in Eastern Turkey.
This story is told with winning grace and creativity in Ben Hopkins' film, which mixes new documentary footage with dramatic recreations, shot with the cooperation -- and acting talent -- of the Kirghiz survivors. The recreations include both black and white, silent film-style sequences (complete with intertitles) and brightly colored sequences that, with their vivid blue skies and low-angle, heroic head shots resemble nothing so much as old, Soviet propaganda films (it's hard to know if this resemblance is conscious or not; given the lingering Kirghiz hatred for the Soviets, it would be a cheeky touch by Hopkins). In addition to relaying key events in Kirghiz history, the recreations also offer moments of humor, as when the US offer of relocation is brought to the tribe by what appears to be a pair of refugees from Men in Black. Hopkins manages to tell a story of terrible struggle with lightness and grace, giving those before his camera respect without robbing them of their delightful individuality. What emerges is a portrait of a resilient, remarkable people, full of humor and unafraid of the future. As an elder says late in the film, when confronted with the inescapable fact that the younger generation not only doesn't know the Pamir but would also rather be in Istanbul than Ulupamir, "Things change. It is the way of the world."
37 Uses for a Dead Sheep is a rare film that is aggressively casual in its approach, but without being dismissive of either its subject or its audience. Refreshingly, Hopkins' film allows his subjects to mold themselves, be they in the present or in the past. In the recreations, the role of Haji Rahman Qui, the last Kirghiz khan, is often played by the very nervous current leader of the tribe, who worries about his ability to accurately represent the icon. Normally quite serious, and clearly very aware of his status as leader (his home is by far the most lavish of those we see, and he rarely lets his guard down on screen), the headman completely loses his composure when, in preparation for a recreation, he obsessively grooms his false mustache, which proceeds to fall halfway off his face. Starting with with a small, dignified smile, he rapidly dissolves into the kind of laughter so overwhelming that it hurts, and takes away your ability to speak. Because Hopkins' cameras were there during such a mundane moment, he was able to present us with another side of this private, intensely composed individual; that scene, on a small scale, is representative of the intimacy achieved by the film as a whole, and a clear indication of its success.