Shepherd (2013) by Perttu Saksa
From the first drop of water that we hear falling, Perttu Saksa’s short film Shepherd (2013) invokes the work of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky (1943-1980), with particular emphasis on his autobiographical and allegorical masterpiece The Mirror (1975). This, according to Saksa, is intentional. Water is a theme which runs through Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. In his work, it is to be seen as a mediator between life and death: we are born into this world carried by life giving waters, and depart it, as it were, headed for that distant shore, be it across the rivers Jordan, Styx or Tuonela - the passageway to the underworld in Finnish mythology.The final scene of Nostalghia (1983) is also memorable: the poet carries a flame across a body of water; failing at first, the a second time, until finally reaching the other end of the pool on the third attempt, only to pass out (possibly die?) of exhaustion after having achieved his goal. The hermit Domenico in Nostalghia lives in a house filled with jars of water, and water dripping down from the ceiling.
Water is also present in Stalker (1983), in the riverlike corridors in The Zone the men wander through, and where the Alsatian lies down (dogs also feature in the beginning Nostalghia and Mirror) in Stalker. Perhaps most significantly, dripping water is a central element to the scene in The Mirror, where the wife/mother washes her hair. The rite of purification itself seems relevant, but as the wet slabs of plaster starts to fall from the ceiling in the following scene, you realize Tarkovsky is using it primarily as an element which invokes change, and the passing of time. The young woman walks to the Mirror, and sees herself as an old woman in her reflection.Falling water echoes (in Domenico’s room, in the scene from The Mirror, in the space around the boy and the shark), thus mapping out space. But even more significantly, it must also be seen to mark time, almost like an hourglass. It is a temporal and spatial element which grounds us through its incessant dripping.
Shepherd, according to Saksa, was inspired by a well-known photograph of a boy carrying a shark through war-strewn Mogadishu. Saksa changes the colour of the boy’s skin (as if to heighten the contrast between the animal and the child), but even more significantly, removes context, setting the animal and the child center stage, giving them our undivided attention.In Saksa’s short, the relation between the boy and the shark is initially unclear. Is he caressing it, trying to calm it down. Is he studying is, performing a medical operation, on in any other way trying to help the animal?
It’s black skin could be that of a horse that he is washing, or an elephant, or some other amphibian or mammal. The dead state of the animal only becomes apparent once the focus moves away from detail into a full image showing both the boy and the shark around the four minute mark. As if to emphasize this, the boy then budges the shark higher up on his shoulder, setting it’s limp fins in motion in a way that underlines the lifeless nature of the animalThe blackness of the dead shark is in clear contrast to the boy’s alabaster-white skin. With his head bowed forward, the boy’s face is shadowed by the sharp contrast of light coming from right above his head, making his eyes seem black, and alarmingly emotionless. As the camera pans over to the boys left cheek round the four minute mark, the emotional balance shifts as other droplets become visible under his eyes: tears on his cheeks.
The positioning of the shark seems to be relevant. As a dead animal worn around the neck, the obvious analogy is with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772-1834) The Rime of The Ancient Mariner (1798), and the albatross suspended around the mariner’s neck as a penalty for his transgression of killing the animal which led him and his crew to safe waters, and now as a punishment must watch his crew die of hunger and high seas, while wearing the dead animal’s carcass around his neck.Coleridge’s poem is a warning, a caveat against the unnecessary cruelty towards animals, and the repercussions this will eventually have on us, in which the poet foresees the curses set upon mankind as a result of our environmental crimes a good 170 years before such views became the norm.
“[Farewell, farewell! but this I tell To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!] He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.”
All things considered, perhaps the most frightening and heart-wrenching element of Saksa’s short is the sound collage which plays through the video. What on first impression seems like the shouts and screams of playing children, shows on closer inspection remarkable affinity with whale song and the eerie chanting of large marine mammals. Time and space is the liquid which ties us all together, man and mammals, and time is running out. The dead shark is the canary in the coalmine, and we all must bear the weight of its carcass around our neck. It is enough to make anyone cry.
Then again, there is hope, Saksa seem to suggest. If we look at the name he has given the short, we are reminded of the Bible story of the good shepherd, who went back for that one lost sheep. The Good Shepherd is often portrayed carrying a yew on his shoulders, very much in the same way the boy carries the shark. Good and evil, life and death, black and white. Opposites, sure, but opposites are inherently linked. In a similar fashion, these two readings do not necessarily rule each other out. Drip-drip-drip, the hourglass taps. Time is running out. What will you be, The Shepherd or The Mariner?