Festival Review: Shepherds And Butchers (2016)

Shepherds And Butchers

Exposing the inhumanity of capital punishment on the men who lead them to the gallows, Oliver Schmitz’s Shepherds And Butchers is a powerful portrait of a human timebomb.

Dead Man Walking

by Mark Wilshin

Shepherds And Butchers

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Based on real events, Oliver Schmitz’s Shepherds And Butchers recreates the events that led 19-year-old prison warden on Death Row Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds) to murder seven members of a South African football team. His story is revealed under cross examination by human rights lawyer Johan Webber (Steve Coogan), and with their client refusing to talk, the defence lawyers decide on a plea of mental instability, gradually revealing the toll his duty as both a shepherd and butcher of the 167 prisoners hanged in Pretoria in 1987 took on the young man. Set within the confines of a South African courtroom, parallels with more recent trials seeking acquittal through a plea of mental instability are clear. But by highlighting the structural violence of state institutions, such as the military or the death penalty, Shepherds And Butchers focuses on the psychological violence these servants of the nation suffer. Its argument is not only the stomach-churning impact of the act of hanging or the ceaseless regularity of the killings and the wardens’ lack of training or psychological support so much as the mental burden of befriending these prisoners, feeding them and reading to them, before leading them to their deaths, often called upon to pull the rope with their own hands. And more than big names Steve Coogan or Andrea Riseborough, it’s Garion Dowds that really shines as the prison warden in the dock. More than just a polemical film against capital punishment, Shepherds And Butchers is the story of an innocent, an individual neglected by a state that, while servicing justice, demands of its servants a cruel hardness.

Shepherds And Butchers is now showing at the 66th Berlin Film Festival

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