Killer of Sheep (1977)

Director Charles Burnett made this film in the 70’s, but not, as he says, for general release. Therefore, Killer of Sheep is only seeing a general theatrical release for the first time, some thirty years after its completion. It’s in Dallas this week, as was Mr. Burnett, who presented his film at the Angelika Theater and was kind enough to offer a lengthy Q & A afterward. More on that in a bit—first, the film.

Killer of Sheep is quietly, heartbreakingly beautiful, even from its first few frames. The complexity of certain scenes emerges largely out of silence and observations. There doesn’t appear to be a perceptible pattern to the placement of the camera, except that it focuses on various elements of the characters–sometimes heads, sometimes bodies, other times hands.

This way of seeing the parts allows the viewer a unique way to ultimately consider the whole of someone like Stan. As the film is a slice of life, to use Burnett’s phrase, it presents “slices of Stan”—both of his body and his deeds. Stan works, eats, talks, and sits. But it’s not a narrative film, so these elements of his life evoke a certain kind of disconnect from one another.

Such divisions between the individual scenes provide an opportunity for the viewer to piece various elements together in unique ways, without the dominance of plot forcing us into a narrow wedge of interpretation. Instead, much like life, we meet strangers, and while we slowly get to know them, the film’s structure prods us to engage and understand, rather than telling us who’s who and what’s what.

Several scenes linger in the mind, but I really appreciated a sequence late in the film when Stan’s wife leaves the dinner table in frustration, then watches from the couch as their young daughter helps her dad relax by rubbing his shoulders. Stan’s joy in this moment stands in stark contrast to the feeling of Stan’s wife (and in contrast to Stan’s demeanor throughout much of the film).

We know Stan’s wife has been frustrated by his detachment, knowledge which helps us understand why she leaves the table so abruptly. Yet the scene serves to deepen the emotional distance between them, not through a verbose and didactic argument or narration, but by focusing on the physical placement of the family in the room. Such moments populate the entire film, creating one of the most engrossing and engaging experiences I’ve had in the theater this year.

The Q&A (which I found out about the morning of) was well attended for being at 5PM on a weekday. The theater ended up about 80% full by the end. Mr. Burnett was soft-spoken and gracious. His answers were especially informative and detailed. Having been to a few of these director Q & A’s in the past, this last quality was most impressive.

Some highlights from the Q&A:

– Burnett names Jean Renoir as an influential filmmaker for him (along with Joris Ivens and Basil Wright). He spoke about Renoir’s The Southerner (a film I’ve not yet seen), specifically about the differences between American and European views of life in the South.

– Burnett was asked a couple of times about the influence of the Italian neo-realists on this film, and while he wanted to move away from claiming them as any kind of direct influence, he did eventually acknowledge that he shared some of their concerns. Notably, he was looking for truth and honesty in his portrayal of this part of the world. He, like the neo-realists, saw the film as an attempt to separate reality from illusion.

– In commenting on documentary film today, Burnett raised the debate about portraying real suffering on screen. How much is too much? He had always been of the mindset that if people could just see what was going on in certain dark corners of the world, they’d be appalled and do something about it. His test case was a recent doc called Empire in Africa, about the war in Sierra Leone. It apparently contains some actual footage of graphic violence (limbs being hacked off and the like), which has caused him to raise this question again for himself. How much is too much? Would seeing such terrible things actually have the opposite effect than what was intended, by turning people off the issue?

– When recently re-watching Sheep as it was being graded for DVD, he found in it a kind of nostalgia, a feeling of warmth for a simpler time, even if it was still terribly difficult for these people to get by. He was asked about making a film on the poor of today, and indicated he’d probably do something less lyrical than Sheep, more factual, focusing on the failure of educational and political institutions, along with probable causes for the troubles.

– As an introduction to the film, Burnett spoke about a question he hoped viewers would ask themselves after seeing it. He wanted us to ask “How can we help these people?” The film was made on the back end of the Civil Rights movement in America, and as such, is directly informed by its concerns. Yet Burnett wasn’t so interested in being didactic with this film. Rather, he hoped that by presenting a vision of the lives of the working poor, viewers would be moved to act on their behalf.

Many thanks go out to Mr. Burnett for coming to Dallas and offering such thoughtful commentary on his film. And kudos to the Angelika for hosting the evening and being willing to run an important film like this in a city that doesn’t always embrace such things. Here’s hoping we see more of this in the future!

5 thoughts on “Killer of Sheep (1977)

  1. I’ll certanly be on the lookout for this. I’m guessing region 2 won’t happen though.

  2. I often feel like many things I’d like to see are available in R2, but not R1, so I can relate. Which is why I proclaim the beauty of multi-region players!

  3. For Imtheotherdave, FYI Killer of Sheep will be coming out on the BFI’s DVD label and for US fans, our company Milestone Films will be bringing out a 3-dvd set on November 13 which will include Burnett’s second feature My Brother’s Wedding (in a new director’s edit) and three shorts.

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