The holiday season is a great time for movie binges, and Abby Fuller knows it. The Emmy-recognized director has worked with Oprah Winfrey, Netflix, and our imaginary boyfriend Zac Efron, and her latest film Shepherd’s Song is free to stream, seriously gorgeous, and full of both sweet animals (yay!) and rare views into California’s healing habitats.
Shepherd’s Song follows Jenya Schneider, a grazer and conservationist trying to restore the grasslands around Sonoma Valley after devastating wildfires—and doing it using the natural herding patterns of local sheep. The film received The North Face’s Move Mountains Filmmaker Grant, and currently
Abby joined Jenya on her quest armed with a camera, a boom mic, and her own unique knowledge—because when she’s not making movies, Abby is running her own organic farm in Northern Virginia.
Here’s what Abby wants us to know about her job, her film, and the best way to get sheep out of your way.
So… sheep can heal wildfire damage?
Obviously, we don’t want wildfires in the first place! But you know, grasses co-evolved with grazing animals. There is a real symbiotic thing that happens when managed intentionally, and it properly mimics ancient patterns. First, sheep or goats or even cattle can literally eat all of the dry material up! That dry brush is highly flammable—it’s great kindling. When grazing animals come in, they get rid of that kindling, so if a wildfire arrives to that area, it can't spread... Sheep also need to… you know…
Visit the restroom?
Exactly. Which puts down great biological material that allows healthier grasses and plants to grow, because they have the nutrition they need. That starts regenerating land that’s really resilient to any sort of fire in the future.
How did you decide a story about sheep and sheep herders was dramatic enough for a movie?
Oh, nature is the most dramatic thing we have! And every person has a story. Jenya’s story felt necessary for me to tell because, thanks to my husband, I’ve been working in regenerative agriculture for years. I’m a huge nerd about soil health! I want other people to learn about it, because it’s so important, and also, it’s really cool. I was so excited when I met Jenya because it allowed me to tell a story about our planet and about a really remarkable young woman at the same time. That’s the dream.
Documentaries require really intimate access to the subject. How do you gain trust from people to film some of the toughest moments of their lives?
It’s a process. For Shepherd’s Song, I went out to their land whenever I was working in Los Angeles. I would just drive up, chat with then, get dinner, and listen. That’s really helpful—you’ve got to treat people like people above all else. Not “subjects.” Also, our values are aligned—we want people to learn about regenerative agriculture!... To both of us, it’s a responsibility to share this information. So understanding that responsibility, and having really sincere, open conversations with everyone—people on camera, people on the crew, everyone—is my approach to building trust.
This is kind of a goofy question, but in my experience, sheep are really unpredictable!
How did you bring film equipment around them without freaking them out? Or having them eat the film equipment?
Well, the good news about this herd is that it’s small and it’s very used to humans. They’re getting moved four times a day so they can graze the dry areas… The other thing is, you know, you’ve got to meet an animal where it’s at, and respect that. Sheep are prey animals. They do freak out if you approach them fast or head-on. Of course they’ll get nervous—that’s really scary! But if you understand where their flight zone is, how the animal expects to be approached, and know what the animal's history has been with people, then you can kind of make calculated decisions. And we’re only filming them when they’re grazing—they’d rather eat the grass than my mic.
How has the climate crisis changed the way you do your job?
For me as a storyteller, it's made me more proactive in trying to tell genuine stories about the planet. I see storytelling as such a great way to share valuable information, and I think my method is really to highlight stories of hope. We have this barrage of media telling us all the disasters, all the time. So as a storyteller, I want to highlight the good things that are happening. And as a filmmaker, I want to be as conscious as possible of our footprint in the industry.
Does having “another life” as a regenerative farmer change the way you tell the story?
Oh, wow. I think the biggest life is a bigger understanding of complexity. It feels like with social media, everything is one photo and a few words. Our attention span seems so small. It makes ideas get oversimplified. And when I look at the way that ecological processes work, it's so complex, so nuanced. There's a million different interactions happening, and they all take time. It takes time to grow things! I feel that way about stories, too: It’s okay to take that time, to ask more questions, to let grey areas and variables exist. That also applies to life in general!
Were you nervous pairing with a big company like North Face to do a film about the environment?
This one was unique in that it was part of a grant program to empower female filmmakers. So rather than a marketing campaign, this was more of a film submission—they wanted to fund female-led films about stories of female exploration. And I was like, “You need to meet Jenya!” Also, they’re doing some great stuff with regenerative wool. So getting them closer to a local farmer producing regenerative wool was really exciting for us all.
Part of your job is to make films in nature. If we want to film something in nature—even just a TikTok or an Instagram reel—what are your tips?
Storytelling is number one. If your story is great, all you need is a way to film it. But if you’re thinking, “How do I best capture nature at its most beautiful?” then okay, there’s a reason we call sunrise and sunset “Magic Hour” and “Golden Hour.” You can have the most expensive lighting rig in the world, and you’ll never get that beauty. So don’t fight against nature—if there are natural windows of amazing light, take them! Get outside and find them.