Movies

‘Gunda’: An Intimate Portrait of a Sow’s Life


Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda is, in the barest sense, a film about a short period in the life of a pig. Gunda, the pig in question, is a Norwegian sow with disarmingly expressive eyes and, at the start of the movie, a fresh litter of squeaking piglets trampling over each other to reach her milk. There’s almost something painful, or if not that, despairing and unquenchable in those newborn squeals. So much need from such tiny beings. When Gunda gets up to reorient herself, you almost wonder if it’s because one of her flailing newborns has somehow gotten squished — that would almost explain their exasperating cries. And when the camera drifts over the hay toward a lone piglet that’s yet to find its way to a teat and, soon after, Gunda lands on that piglet with an unforgiving hoof — more cries. And more questions. 

From its opening minutes, Gunda appears before us in an expressive, detailed bath of black-and-white images, with every shot, even within Gunda’s barn, relying on natural light, and with no voiceovers or textual markers to guide us through the when and where of it all. Few traces of explicit humanity or the overt apparatus of a “movie” seem apparent, at first, beyond the fact of the camera itself — and the beauties it catches. We are dropped right into Gunda’s world: into the barn in which she cares for her litter and, more urgently, into the more intimate but less easily described realm of her the piglets’ needs, their habits and instincts, their emotions. 

This last part — the emotional life of not only this particular pig and her lot but also a roving cast of others, including cattle and an especially memorable one-legged chicken — is what Gunda is actually about. The movie is a film-length argument against our usual, overly personified, cutesy depictions of animals. It is also, not incidentally, a plea to stop eating them. 

Kossakovsky, who hails from Russia, and who’s been trying to make this film for many years, is attempting something difficult with this film. He is trying to keep us — all of us — honest. And through a variety of pointed strategies, many of which resemble staid minimalism despite being the product of careful artifice, he’s asking the same of film as a medium. Film: with its processes of photographic emulsion and, accordingly, its use of gelatin — animal collagen, culled from the hides of animals quite like those we see in Gunda. Film: which, in the case of a movie about stock such as these, must in essence destroy what it depicts. 

This, for Kossakovsky, is no arbitrary fact. Nor is it arbitrary that the situations we think we’re seeing here are not all what they seem. Gunda is Kossakovsky’s attempt to achieve beauty and expansiveness at minimal cost to both the world it depicts and the world at large. It’s comprised of footage shot over the course of multiple months, on farms and sanctuaries in Gunda’s Norway, but also Spain and the United Kingdom. The film seems, at first glance, to be interested in the kind of clear-eyed, intimate, natural beauty that usually demands a great deal of overshooting and environmentally reckless waste. In fact, Kossakovsky has assembled what’s here from only six hours of footage, total — a number that doesn’t reflect the amount of time he must have spent watching and familiarizing himself with his subjects and becoming a seamless part of their world, to the extent that that’s possible. (In the purest sense, it isn’t.) “I should not film if I don’t need it,” Kossakovsky’s has said. “I shouldn’t waste it and I only can press the button when I really, really need this shot.” 

How do you minimize waste? Kossakovsky built Gunda a new, bigger barn, and fit it with cameras to allow for 360-degree views of the goings-on inside. He prepared tracking shots in anticipation of their later use. Maybe choices like this put undue pressure on the meaning of each and every moment that Gunda captures, each and every one of its crisp, attentive shots, be they footage within Gunda’s barn, captured using Arri ALEXA mini-cams, or the loose and vibrant steadicam portraits of cattle enduring the buzz and flit of every fly making a beeline for their patient faces. 

What’s interesting about the film is that it all does, somehow, count. Kossakovsky’s mission here is to give us a sense of the internal worlds of these animals simply by observing their everyday lives and, by shooting them across a span of months, allowing the piglets, in particular, to grow before our eyes. Actually, there’s nothing simple about it. The cattle, the chickens, Gunda’s clan: these animals don’t know each other. They are not a “Strange Animal Friends” composite of the kind you’d find lurking in my YouTube watch history. The movie invents these social relationships by implying that the animals have proximity to each other, flowing between their lives, zeroing in on telling consistencies, in ways that encourage our minds to fill in gaps which in fact cannot be filled, assume relationships that in fact do not exist. 

Yet the film alternately proposes legitimate connections, largely by way of the aesthetic consistencies throughout. There’s a panoramic impulse to so much of Kossakovsky’s filmmaking, here. Within the barn, in the fields that the cattle graze, in the new world that the chickens emerge into, uncontained by their coop for what is unmistakable the first time. Kossakovsky, who with Egil Håskjold Larsen is credited as the cinematographer, often traces circular arcs around his subjects early in their journeys. He has a way of finding the runts and loners within each group. And, importantly, he by and large restricts us to eye-level views of these animals, a perspective whose effects should be obvious, and aren’t less impactful for that obviousness. Even when Kossakovsky deviates from that schema — even when what feel like drone shots of cattle running free of their containment with so much unbridled liberty, traipsing through the grass, along the treelined borders of their land — the vastness that Gunda imposes feels consistent. 

It’s a vastness, an almost sentimental grandeur, meant to be looped back into our sense of the animals’ emotional lives. At one point we’re treated to mobile, ennobling portraits of the cattle, tails flicking, faces specked with those bothersome flies — and ears visibly tagged. Of all of Gunda’s on-camera subjects, these cattle are the figures most prone to looking back, whose awareness of the camera throws us back into ourselves. How can there be anything but consciousness behind such awareness? The cattle pair off, end to end, and use their tails to swat the bugs from each others’ faces. How can there be anything but kinship in such a favor?

Or consider the chickens, their slow-moving hesitancy as they emerge from that coop. Here and elsewhere, Kossakvosky plays with the speed of the images; chickeny jitters are slowed to the point of the animals seeming just this side of alien. The accomplishment is as stark as the bloodless black-and-white to which the film, which was shot in color, was color-corrected. Close-ups on the chickens’ feet, slowed down, key into a feeling. It is not the chickens that are alien, but this sensation: their feet on the grass, for the first time.

At least — that’s how it seems. For the granular emphaticness of its visual technique and its god-like ability to see seemingly everything, what Gunda cannot obscure is the Gunda of it all. No humans, as such, appear onscreen; yet no one thinks Gunda herself, or any of those cattle, are operating the camera. Gunda personalizes these animals without humanizing them, and evacuates explicit humanity without ignoring its clear impact. Someone’s feeding these. Someone built the fences that demarcate the stern limits on the animals’ separate worlds. Someone (Kossakovsky) built that barn, laid down that hay; someone nestled those chickens into the cage from which they emerge, so slowly, with the precaution of prisoners uncertain if their sudden liberation is some kind of trick. And someone is driving the tractor, at the end of the film, that begets Gunda’s startling, conclusory tragedy.

Tragedy: A dramatic, which is to say human, construction, at least within the scope of a film narrative. And narrative, to be clear, is not something that Gunda resists, for all the ways it refuses the easier narrative pleasures of a Planet Earth documentary. Narrative isn’t what Kossakovsky is resisting, here, even if that might have proven wiser, in the end. We start with birth, we end with death; it is what it is. Cute anthropomorphism: that’s the enemy. Hence the color, the pinkish-white pudginess of Gunda’s babes, the complex tones of each animal’s eyes, being drained from the movie. And hence sound design which — manufactured by the film’s sound wizards from natural sounds — goes out of its way to heighten our sense of immersion. What happens when we make the case for the emotional and social lives of inhuman animals through gestures as simple as not flinching when they take a piss in the camera’s direction, or look back at us? We get friendlier, less crass moments that manage, somehow, to out for being natural, rather than merely cute. Piglets peak out of their barn to catch droplets of rain in their mouths and the effect is both grand and not, cute and adamantly resistant to that idea. 

Gunda was shortlisted in the documentary feature category of the upcoming Academy Awards. It did not make the final cut. Compare it to a movie that did: Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, in which a man seemingly befriends an octopus, and the sense of man communing with nature supersedes nature in itself. So the Oscar nomination for that vision over Gunda’s makes certain sense — if we let it. Gunda is not a difficult or imposing movie — nevermind the fact that it appears to be so. It isn’t hard to follow. And it isn’t morally superior for the world’s many octopus odd-couple stories simply for cutting humans out of the picture. It’s a better film for its awareness of the very limits it attempts to render moot — limits of the form, which it cannot entirely surpass. Both films are pleas to take nature seriously from the perspective of a world on the precipice of its own extinction. Both say: Save this. Both use cutting-edge filmmaking technology to make their case. Kossakovsky’s film is far quieter; relatedly, it is also the louder and more urgent appeal. It’s aesthetic is a means to an end. And the stakes of those ends are, for all the artifice, far more real.

Gundacan be screened at home via the Film Forum’s “virtual cinema”.

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