A young man falls from the sky into a deserted field with nothing but a lamb in a suitcase and an engagement ring in his pocket. So opens Madja Amin’s fantastical coming of age short Stray Sheep and a journey of magical realism where tradition and culture vie for ascendancy over self-determination. An auspicious narrative debut from the Amsterdam-based filmmaker which netted him a Young Director Award last year, we sat down with Amin for a detailed discussion about his allegorical depiction of the nature of manhood and sacrifice.

What inspired this fantastical coming of age journey?

For my first short film, I wanted to explore some moral themes at the very core of human nature. Stray Sheep is a conceptual coming of age story, considering themes such as identity and the feeling of belonging. As the son of Iraqi-Kurdish refugees, these are topics that have always been top of mind for me. In Stray Sheep, I wanted to address them in a layered and complex way.

The dilemmas Idris is faced with are symbolic of the sacrifices and choices newcomers must make in establishing their new identity. At the core of the narrative is an investigation of human connectedness and its major impact on decision-making processes. As people with multiple identities try to figure out these connections, a complex quest for placing the self within a context of tradition, culture and various points of belonging begins.

I wanted to explore some moral themes at the very core of human nature.

From its opening descent through the clouds it’s clear that Stray Sheep is going to be a film rich imagery.

The film had to generate a spiritual, magical-realistic feeling. That’s why the film starts in a supernatural way with the main character Idris floating in the air, thus immediately introducing the abstract way of storytelling. The content of the film and the visual concept are closely linked. I wanted to convey the loneliness of our main character. The camera largely kept its distance and observed our main character from afar. Inspired by great directors such as Béla Tarr, Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone, I wanted to reinforce this feeling of loneliness by combining the use of wide lenses with long takes and a dynamic camera approach.

Likewise, there’s a richness to the sound design which takes on extra narrative weight give the sparsity of dialogue.

I wanted to implement the magical aspect of our visual language in the sound design as well. This translates through the scarcity of dialogue, which places more emphasis on atmosphere and feeling. An important magical element is the zaghrouta we hear throughout the film, which greatly contrasts the European landscape. Getting more and more intense towards the end, it sounds almost like a warning.

The bleating of the lamb also plays a prominent role. I thought it would be nice to make the sound of the Lamb slightly abstract so that it fit the magical style of the film. I also wanted to do this with the sound of the wind. In the end, we create a hypnotic function where we work towards a climax at the wedding, where the sounds become increasingly penetrating and we eventually see Idris fall into a trance. Our Composer Raven Aartsen then made a stunning psychedelic-rock influenced track to end the film.

It’s not clear where in the world we’re seeing this story unfold, is that ambiguity by design? Where did you actually shoot?

The film should feel timeless and not reflect a certain period in time. A universal film with a theme that has been known for more than half a century. I found it important not to link this film to a specific country or city. It could be anywhere in Europe. We looked for real places with unexpected elements and great textures that give character to our settings. In art direction, I wanted to distinguish between the countryside and the city. We worked with textures in the countryside such as wood, mud and dew. In contrast to the textures in the city where we see cement, stone and neon. I was confident that we would find these authentic locations in and around Liege, Belgium.

I found it important not to link this film to a specific country or city.

These characters all have a symbolic quality to them, could you tell us more about what they represent for you within the framing of the story and how that shaped your casting?

Due to the scarcity of dialogue the focus lay more on the performance of the cast, their faces, body movements and charisma. It was all about finding the right performers who could give the film a unique personality.

Idris is 25 years old, falls from the sky and lands somewhere in Europe. A dazed Arab young man destined to get married to a woman he has never met. Idris has a Lamb with him, his last connection to home, which he is expected to sacrifice at the bridal party. Throughout his prearranged journey we as spectators feel his doubts grow bigger and bigger. Is this the right choice? Is this his choice? Until something snaps and he realises he’s not ready, but he is beyond the point of return. It becomes painfully clear to Idris that he can’t find a connection to this new country, and therefore he is driven into the arms of his traditional culture.

In Idris, who has elevated the suppression of undesirable feelings into art, these energies express themselves in an almost animal way of moving and doing. With his wide eyes, he lets all impressions act on him, like a nervous rabbit, and when he walks he first leans slightly forward, like a young deer who is still chasing his head. After a long casting search in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, our casting agent Lou eventually found Nabil Kechouchen in Paris. After a casting session in Paris, I immediately knew he was the perfect man to play the role of Idris.

We don’t know the name of the Butcher. We only know that he is a nomad originally from the mountain region. The Butcher travels around, keeping his Arab traditions alive. But how he got here and what he does here is a mystery. A mystery that is not for the viewer to solve. The Butcher believes in his traditions and he firmly believes in fate. Everything is already written in the stars, from the moment you are born. So does your marriage. In an implicit way, the Butcher says that you cannot just disconnect yourself from your homeland. And that you can’t detach yourself from your destiny at all. This deterministic character tries to help Idris to his wedding, but he leaves the choice to the young man. I was fortunate enough to come in contact with the great Slimane Dazi (Un Prophete). After a long telephone call, where I explained the story, he decided to join the film and to play the Butcher.

The Lamb symbolises innocence and intuition. She is just as lost and displaced as Idris. However, she senses the destination of this trip and starts to panic more and more as the film progresses. Where Idris tries to appear calm and in control on the outside, the adage of the Lamb is: what she feels is what you see. The Lamb also symbolises a part of Idris: his repressed feeling. In that role she is also the greatest antagonist in the film. The Lamb absolutely does not want to go to the wedding; getting married would directly counter what Idris feels deep down about the direction he wants to take his life. When Idris commits to this marriage, it means sacrificing his true feelings. And literally sacrificing the Lamb.

What did you shoot on and how long was the process of taking Stray Sheep from concept to completed film?

The film was shot by my great friend and Cinematographer Noel Schoolderman on an Alexa Mini with Hawk C-series anamorphic lenses. We were first opting for the Hawk Vlites, but unfortunately they weren’t available during our shooting period. All in all, from writing to financing, to producing, to shooting, to post-production, it took a year to finish this film.

I wanted to implement the magical aspect of our visual language in the sound design as well.

How different did you find the process of creating your first narrative short as compared to the commissioned projects which came before?

Commissioned projects are much shorter, much more condensed compared to narrative films. You shoot more frequently, make more hours, work on finding your signature style, and most importantly build up a good crew of talented people. During the creation of Stray Sheep I noticed that my previous experience came in very handy.

The major takeaway when making Stray Sheep was getting used to the length and duration of narrative projects. While for commissioned work you go quickly in and out, with narrative work you spend many months, if not years, from beginning to end. You need to have patience. Fortunately, the relief and joy afterwards are much bigger as well.

I tend to favour projects with much creative freedom, although I still have to operate within a specific boundary. For narrative work this limitation is gone. Which makes the process a bit harder, but at the same time also more personal and in the end all the more gratifying.

Will we see more narrative work from you in the future?

My next film is called May. A film about a tongueless hitman becoming a father unexpectedly, with a woman he doesn’t know. It’s officially categorised as a mid-length film — 45 minutes — meant for TV. The project is part of a talent program for young filmmakers before progressing into making a full feature.

Just a few weeks ago we were in the peak of pre-production, before a lockdown was announced in The Netherlands. Otherwise we would have been shooting right now. Quite surreal actually. So for the moment being we’re having a break while I’m fine-tuning the script. I can’t wait to start shooting soon.

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