Rams, kinship and farmer-animal relations

Agricultural show in Rams (2020). Image cred: IMDb

Farming is known for its will to keep the job in the family. In the same vein, Rams (2020) focuses on two farming brothers who are joined by blood but separated physically and emotionally by a fence and the absence of conversation.

They haven't spoken for years due to tensions of inheritance, but like any farming neighbours they cannot exist independently of the local environment. It’s not until their shared dog spots a new-born lamb over the fence that the united front amongst farmers to care for land and livestock is highlighted. It turns out that the brothers communicate using their dog as a messenger who passes written notes between them. Research suggests that dogs can facilitate social interaction with others, for example between strangers in public parks who might start by introducing their dogs. This case is different in that their sheepdog is not only a conversational piece which draws them together, but a mediator of communication, carrier pigeon style. Dogs may not be communicators through speech, yet their vocabulary extends to an embodied language which enables a relationship with them as both a colleague for navigating sheep and a companion. 

Sheep-ish symbols

The fate of some farm animals as food often pre-empts a distant relationship between farmers and their stock. Yet, circumstances such as animal disease or farmer retirement show that it is not uncommon for farmers to engage in an emotional relationship with them that is complex to navigate upon separation. Indeed in my own research speaking to women farmers in England, I found that they were attuned to knowing the biographies and personalities of their animals who become embedded in working rhythms as colleagues would. At the same time, raising happy and healthy animals can be a symbol of a farmer’s success. Following this, the film opens with one of the farmers, Colin, telling his sheep they are beautiful before the competitive camaraderie of an agricultural show where a good ram is deemed to reflect a good farmer. 

It is at the point where the rams are invited over the threshold of domestic space that we start to question their identity as stock. In Rams, proximity is represented by scenes where farmer Colin enjoys a drink alongside the sheep in his living room. There is a sense of togetherness that symbolises the companionship and reciprocal mission to protect each other from the clutch of the agriculture ministry. The sheep occupy his bathroom which contrasts with the signs of life that blew their cover; sheep droppings outside. These spaces mark out the dichotomies which often surround assumptions about humans and animals such as them being civilized/uncivilized respectively. The question becomes at what point can sheep become pets which is arguably a liminal status between these dichotomies.

The film depicts, in a nuanced way, the part that animals play in the co-existing rhythms of isolation and community in farming. Perhaps it is apt to consider kinship as a way of incorporating the likes of dogs and sheep into the wider network of social actors.

What role do animals have in your life?