Research, generally speaking, is the foundation of the social-issue documentary, and the more exhaustive, the better. It behooves documentarians to conduct a rigorous study, whatever their subject, and the depth of such films is, to a large extent, determined by the diligence and assiduity of what is, in essence, reportage. Without Shepherds, a new documentary about life in contemporary Pakistan, is the product of a tremendous investment of time and effort: Its apparently indefatigable co-directors, Cary McClelland and Imran Babur, gathered more than 900 hours of interview footage with participants across the country, shot, edited, transcribed, and translated painstakingly over two years. (McClelland and Babur plan to compile the remaining transcriptions into a kind of "spin-off" volume to accompany the film’s home-video release.)
The problem is one of disorder. Pure research, while certainly valuable, must be given editorial shape and direction; this kind of raw material needs to be sculpted into something cogent, streamlined, and shorn of excess. Without Shepherds is all sprawl, a loose mélange of talking heads and landscape b-roll. Political rhetoric is invoked but not elaborated. The state of modern Pakistan is bemoaned at length, though rarely compellingly. And so McClelland and Babur are left to meander between their half dozen principal subjects without any sense of design or momentum. The press materials -- as well as an echo chamber of early reviews -- describe the result as something of a "tapestry," but this hardly seems accurate. A tapestry weaves its component parts together with purpose and intricacy. Without Shepherds does neither.