Victor Kossokofsky loves to prod at the boundaries of what he can do with documentary cinema — 2018’s Aquarela, for instance, asked its audience to marvel at the power and grace of water in all its mighty, dangerous forms. In Gunda, his scope shrinks from the mighty oceans to a small farm in Norway, where a mama pig, a one-legged chicken, and a pair of cows while away the hours in breathtaking black-and-white closeup. But far from the sun-dappled idyll of Babe or a DisneyNature documentary, Kossokofsky’s approach makes these creatures simultaneously relatable and inhuman at the same time.
The doc opens on a shot of our titular hero — Gunda, a mama pig — framed oppressively in the tiny door to her hay-covered shed. She lays on the ground, squealing in agony, as Kossokosfky pushes in slowly in a Kubrickian zoom. But as we see, she’s actually giving birth, her piglets immediately clamoring out of the womb and fighting for access to her teats. It’s a relief to see she’s okay, but Kossokofsky never lets us forget their ultimate fate; they’re cute piggies, but they’re also products to be consumed. Often, we don’t see Gunda’s face, just her teats as the piglets scramble for access. She’s a resource more than a creature with a soul, and Gunda’s best moments play with that ambiguity.
Executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix (whose Oscar acceptance speech this year — remember the Oscars? — included a plea for animal welfare), it’d be easy to confuse Gunda for a clarion call to veganism, capturing the innocent rhythms of everyday farm animals in all their expressiveness. And indeed, the film commits itself to mine the most graceful cinematic moments from the everyday rhythms of life on a farm. Kossokofsky’s camera, rendered in shallow focus, high-contrast black and white, keeps its gaze at the animals from ground level, framing them like you would human characters in a grand drama. The effect is uncannily gripping, Gunda opting for a wordless approach to avoid anthropomorphizing these farm animals, challenging the viewer to see them for what they are.
And indeed, we get a lengthy, languid look at life on the farm, Gunda playing out a series of small dramas over the course of its ninety minutes that showcase the grace and cruelty of farm life in equal measure. At first blush, the farms in which the film is set (shot across England, Spain, and Norway) are free-range paradises, particularly when Kossokosfky turns his camera away from the pigs to chickens and cows moving through the grounds with a kind of primal grace.
Admittedly, the elemental approach to the material can drag, especially when the camera moves away from our little drama with Gunda and the piglets to the chickens and cows. There are glimmers of grace there, including with a one-legged chicken who seems unaffected by its disability, but Kossokofsky’s love of holding a shot and a scene makes stretches of Gunda as repetitive as, well, life on a farm can be.
Nonetheless, the doc exerts a strange pull on you, both asking you to empathize with these creatures and recognizing the unrelenting circle of life. Amongst the frolicking and the adorable snorts of piglets, there are moments of cruelty; early in the film, Gunda herself stomps on the runt of the litter, with sounds that chill the blood. While we never see the farmers themselves, the specter of what they do lingers in the background, both in the distant hum of machines and our own knowledge of what these animals will eventually be used for.
That last point is never more clear than in Gunda’s closing minutes, a heartbreaking, uninterrupted shot that follows a rumbling truck snatching up the piglets from their shed and driving off with them. That’s foreboding enough, but Kossokosfky follows Gunda as she darts around looking for them, something like despair and confusion passing over her face. It’s a moment of visceral, immediate cinema, one that immediately spikes home the exploitative nature of animal farming — applying the camera’s innate ability to humanize onto an animal we try not to think about before it hits our dinner plate.
While the rest of Gunda can feel formless and meandering almost to a fault, it’s this final moment that truly hammers home the shape of Kossokofsky’s experiment. Despite Phoenix’s endorsement, Gunda is grippingly distanced from its subjects and devoid of overt editorializing. Rather than feeling like a heartstring-pulling plea to go meatless, it’s a matter-of-fact account of the little tragedies that play out in the lives of animals who are born, live, and die for consumption by others. And at the same time, shows us moments of stark, intimate beauty from a ground-level view we could never achieve otherwise.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival. Neon will release Gunda in the US at a later date.