Icelandic filmmaker Yrsa Roca Fannberg’s feature-length documentary shows life on a remote sheep farm, all set within a wider continuum of birth and rebirth.
The opening of the lyrical, ovine-themed The Last Autumn presents a mythological world in chaos. Against a backdrop of vast, angry, black clouds we are told how, once again, there is a gaping abyss, the sun is blackened and the fire of creation is extinguished. But life prevails, the sun rises from the darkness, the moon and the stars remember their places and eventually there is time again to love, lose and mourn. Another year commences.
Within this yearly cycle, we meet ageing farmer Úlfar who has come to the realisation that his herding days are nearing their end. His family has kept sheep for generations but, as his offspring and their children live in Rejkjavik, there will be no sheep farming in the future, and so he must contemplate selling on his flock both for breeding and for slaughter.
The film is slow, satisfying and meditative, but punctuated by scenes of action and industry, such as the herding of the sheep from precipitous hillsides. There are also continuous nods to Icelandic mythology, itself inspired by the island’s dramatic topographical features. We are also continually reminded of our mortality through the broadcast of death notices on the local radio as well as the fragility of the indigenous language in the face of the ubiquitous use of English.
Director Fannberg had first-hand experience working on an Icelandic farm every summer as a child, and was therefore used to the dramatic herding process. She had even witnessed back then how the father of a friend was forced to give up his flock, and the subsequent sense of loss that he suffered.
When she heard about Úlfar’s dilemma, therefore, her filmmaking instincts kicked in and she was determined to record events as they unfolded. “It was about the flock coming to an end,” she says.
Úlfar is natural on camera and, like most country people, Fannberg argues, was happy to sign up to the film as much out of an inherent sense of kindness. “When I asked him he just said ‘yes’ without even thinking about it. Then when it came closer I asked him if he knew how hard it was going to be. ‘We are going to be with a small crew and we are going to be following you and you will have to tell us what you are doing’, which is another thing that he is not used to having to do. He is used to being able to getting off to do his thing.”
“But he is stoic and not over-dramatic like how us city people can be. He deals with life as it comes,” she adds.
Úlfar’s farming chores involve feeding (sometimes three lambs simultaneously, a third bottle jammed between his knees), transporting livestock and dragging large pieces of driftwood up the beach with his tractor. He also fishes, and in one memorable scene scorches the skin and hair from a sheep’s head before preparing it for consumption.
He smokes and cleans his pipe incessantly, and eats the fish and lamb suppers prepared for him by his wife Oddny, sitting side by side with her within their kitchen.
The film was shot over a three-week period before the footage was delivered to editor Federico Delpero Bejar who shaped it, suggesting the insertion of mythological passages to underline the link between present, past and future. The long final sequence of the film serves to emphasis further these temporal relationships.
“I think when I started developing the film I always had a photographic camera with me, or a notebook, so I was always observing Úlfar,” the director recalls.
“But I think he knew that this was his way of telling his way of life for future generations. It sounds pompous but I think he knew the importance of making the film, without ever saying it afterwards or at the time.”