Jakob Ion Wille
Opening The Sheep Thief
The opening of this short by Asif Kapadia is overwhelming. Under the burning sun, from an Olympian high angle shot, we see a young boy lying on the glowing sand on the one side of two wheel-tracks. After the title-sequence we cut back in time. Now, at ground level, we see the boy hiding in the dark city night. In front of a house, a sheep is tied up. The boy cautiously crawls out of his hiding-place, unties the sheep and grabs it. The theft is soon discovered and the boy, closely pursued by two men, runs through the narrow alleys of the city carrying the animal in his arms. When one of the pursuers reaches out to grab the sheep thief, the latter suddenly stops and hits him with a primitive weapon. The pursuer is hit in the eye and falls to the ground. The sheep thief finds a hiding place under a house, but when he is about to pick up a coin somebody lost in the street, he is discovered by the second pursuer. The punishment for theft is cruel. The boy gets a stigma burnt onto his forehead. His wild hair is cut and he is left to his fate on the sand outside the city.
Later, we shall take a closer look at the ways in which Kapadia establishes the point of view of the main character. The establishment of POV is a critical moment in any movie, but as I will try to show, the solution to the problem in The Sheep Thief is particularly refined. I shall also briefly situate the film with respect to genre. But first, back to the plot:
A man stops to help the unconscious boy, but when he discovers the stigma branded on the thief’s forehead, he abandons him again. Luckily it starts to rain. The sheep thief wakes up and comes to his feet.
Having walked for a while, he comes to a little village, steals a red scarf from a sleeping woman and ties it around his head to cover the stigma.
The nameless thief helps two boys harvesting a mango tree and succeeds in becoming friends with them. He also shows some magic tricks to the boys, and step by step, they end up trusting him. The boys’ mother invites him to stay, provided that he help them with their daily harvesting work, which he does.
But when the family tries to sell the fruit at the village market, no one is interested in buying their produce. The younger of the two brothers asks the thief if he can help them by using his magic.
Possibly inspired by the younger brother, the thief steals a golden lamp from a local temple. Some young men from the village follow him and beat him up. An elderly man observes the attack and as he approaches the scene the attackers hurry away. The thief succeeds in turning the situation to his own advantage. He gives the lamp to the elderly man and tells him that he was trying to prevent the others from stealing it. The sheep thief is suddenly hailed as a hero. After that, the selling of the mangoes becomes a prosperous business.
But soon the past catches up with the thief. The man who had branded him recognises him at the market, and the next day, the boy is expelled from the village. Before he leaves, he divides his red scarf into two strips and gives one to each brother. The three boys lie on the sand outside the city and for a while they look up at the sky. Suddenly it starts raining and the two brothers return home. The thief walks on and continues towards an uncertain future. "To help another family", as the mother puts it when she and her two sons work around the mango tree again in the closing scene. And one of the boys replies: "He can help them with his magic".
Magic plays an important role in The Sheep Thief. One of the poetic highlights of the film is the scene at the market, in which the sheep thief tells the younger of the two brothers that he can make it rain. He asks the boy to look up at the sky and then sprays some water from a bottle at him. Another of these moments we find in the scene in which the thief shows to the brothers how to make resin run from a tree trunk.
This magic represents the one glimpse of hope that exists in The Sheep Thief and at the same time it equips the protagonist with some of the inner tension that makes him interesting as an object of identification. I will later take a closer look at the creation of this figure of identification and in that connection, will naturally focus on the dramatic set-up in the film. But first I will briefly comment on both stylistics and genre relations.
Stealing sheep and bicycles
Kapadia’s film is entitled The Sheep Thief, which almost automatically leads one’s thoughts to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealistic classic, The Bicycle Thief from 1947. Kapadia’s film, like De Sica’s, is shot on location, the dialogue is minimal and children and other amateur actors are seen in the leading parts. At the same time, The Sheep Thief tells a tragic and stark story about the absolutely lowest level of Indian existence, while never losing sight of the beauty and possibilities inherent in this existence. As a story, The Sheep Thief has all the classical neorealistic virtues. The film can be seen as an adventure in a poor but beautiful India and as an illustration of the mechanisms that turn a boy into a thief. It is important to keep in mind that the quality of the film lies in its way of interweaving these problems with a simple plot, but what lifts it beyond just being good and sympathetic craftsmanship is its ambiguity. The richness in nuance is especially obvious in the description of the thief’s character and his development.
Point of view
Although it is the meeting with the friendly family that catalyses the thief’s transition from wild boy to magician, it is obvious that his stigmatization plays a major role in his development. Had he not been discovered and literally torn out of the darkness that surrounds him in the beginning, he would never have met the family with the mango tree and there would probably not have been any progression at all.
The transition out of the first sequence in the film happens simultaneously with the stigmatising of the boy. As he cries out in pain, the frame burns out and turns white. After that, the boy, whose world was secret before, now lies out in the open for everyone to see. The contrast could not have been any stronger. There are no easy solutions in the film. It is painful for the boy to become visible.
In the film, the boy continues to steal but the spectator easily forgives him. We can understand the impossible situation he is in, but empathy is also dependent on the emotional involvement of the spectator. It is, as mentioned, a critical moment in most movies if this identification is well established. In The Sheep Thief the problem is solved both in an exciting and an effective way.
The set-up and establishment of POV occur in the most dramatic sequence in The Sheep Thief. The POV of the film is fixed in this sequence that is defined and framed by the two shots of the boy lying unconscious on the sand. The POV of the boy finds its fixed form during the climax of the sequence as the thief hits his opponent’s eye and blinds him. Though The Sheep Thief is not a film that in any way questions conventional cinematic codes or the position of the spectator, it provides an interesting solution to the problem of establishing the protagonist’s POV, in this case through the destruction of another POV. The action reduces the possibilities for identification. The spectator’s POV is established with a violence that is absent in the rest of the film. This sharpens our sensibility to the new world that opens to the thief and to us as spectators. At one and the same time, the dramatic moment in the set-up limits the possibilities for identification and opens the spectator’s eyes to the thief’s special world.
It is through a refined use of classical dramatic elements in the setting of a short film that Asif Kapadia opens up his main character. The same can be said about the construction of the protagonist in The Sheep Thief.
The secret agent
Of course the protagonist is more than just a construction in a film like The Sheep Thief. However it is still possible to extract some essential components from the figure. The main character in the film is, first and foremost, a child and a thief. He is therefore, by definition, both innocent and guilty. The character’s inner drive is embedded in this simple antagonism.
At the same time, we have a character who tries to hide his true identity. The main character’s hidden identity gives the film its tension and suspense. But at the same time it sets in relief an important aspect of the figure. The protagonist always represents the spectator’s eye and is therefore our main point of entrance into the fiction. The main character mediates between the real world outside and the fiction. The boy in The Sheep Thief is a stranger, and because of his secret he can never be an integrated part of the world of the family with the mango tree. This again qualifies him as the spectator's agent. Throughout most of the film, the thief even carries a visible mark signifying this. The red scarf hides his second identity and thereby constitutes itself as sign of the boy’s main conflict and function. This is classical. But the division in the thief’s character also shows up on several levels. The thief is burned by the sun and by the stigma in his forehead, but at the same time, he produces rain and resin. He carries the sign of destruction, but he makes the family business prosper. The thief mediates several conditions and this tension and the development it encourages makes him attractive and open for identification.
In short The Sheep Thief tells the story of a thief who, not unlike Aladdin, survives by using magic. His development is vitalized through the use of the red scarf and by his progress as a magician. In the beginning the thief shows magic tricks to the brothers, but in the end he may be the cause of a cloudburst. It is then told that he is going to help other families with his magic. The magic represents the glimpse of hope that exists in The Sheep Thief. At the same time The Sheep Thief represents some of the magic that can be found in the poetic realism of cinema – and maybe in life in general.
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