Nothing you read here will prepare you for the experience of watching Gunda, the new film from Russian director Victor Kossakovsky. It’s about animals, in particular a pig whose name gives the movie its title. But she, and her litter, and the chickens and cows we will also see, aren’t presented in verdant colors with heart-tugging music and a dulcet, reassuring narrator. The animals are not anthropomorphized into our comfort sphere; in fact, it is the viewer who’s presented with animal characteristics. And if you don’t recognize the plot of the story right away, that’s only because you’ve been fed so many movies with an identical sequence of tension-to-resolution gimmicks that you’re inclined to regard the day-to-day life of an animal as boring. “Gunda” proves it’s anything but.
The extra long opening sequence gives us an image of a barn wall with a smaller entryway, in which lies the unmoving head of that pig. Eventually, her silhouette is eclipsed by the succession of busy piglets. She’s giving birth. As this becomes apparent, we move inside.
Because the film is black-and-white, it never becomes a paean to Nature’s Beauty. “We started in color,” says Kossakovsky, “but there was too much to see, and it looked like postcards. When we took the color out, you could see the personalities.” Thus we concentrate instead on the animals we’re shown, usually in close-up and at the level on which the animals live.
There’s also no narration and no music. “Music always emphasizes and dominates the emotions,” the director explains, noting that all of the sounds you hear in his film are the natural sounds of each environment.
About 20 minutes in, we shift to a cage of chickens, transported, we’re led to guess, to a sanctuary field, their conditions, we can’t help but notice, fairly poor. A stunning example of the virtuoso camerawork is a close-up of chicken feet, one rising and flexing and slowly returning to the ground as the other repeats that sequence.
Then there’s the shot of a rooster advancing along a woodland path, looking like Kirk Douglas in “Paths of Glory.” Which only adds to the claustrophobic feeling of chicken-land, where the sounds (all diagetic and part of the animal world depicted in this fully felt film), seem at times ominous and often elicit quick responses from the wary birds. Or perhaps I’m reading into it (as I suspect you’re expected to do), because I have a backyard flock and have witnessed the predator-rich existence they have. But I was warned by a chickens-keeping neighbor that they will prove fascinating to observe, and the slow-paced, starkly photographed study of these rescue birds – particularly a one-legged hen that isn’t about to let that disability slow her down.
And it sets us up for a return to the world of the piglets. One of them is lame, and gets special attention from its mother, which is as endearing as any similar human interaction could be. The piglets have grown, and now they compete over food and foraging.
Our third major meat-food group is introduced when a herd of cows is seen leaving their barn, bells clanging, their motion slightly slowed for dramatic effect. We track alongside them for a while, then follow them from behind as they head for a paddock where they’ll spend the day.
A bull stares down the camera. The day is hot; there’s a heavy persecution of flies. The cows endure it, employing a time-honored solution to mitigate the annoyance that’s shared by many long-tailed four-legged beasts.
Gunda, named for a female Norse warrior, lives on a farm in Norway, where her portions of the movie were shot. Other sequences were filmed in England and Wales, but there’s such a compelling unity of seeing wildlife in the wild that such borders don’t really matter.
Thunder. A spattering of rain. We’re back with the piglets, even larger now and delighting in the drips. So accustomed have we become to the natural sounds of these environments that it’s a shock when the comparative roar of a tractor kicks in. It sounds like doom approaching. And it is.
Kossakovsky had been trying for a few years to realize this idea, and once animal-rights activist Joaquin Phoenix came aboard as producer, the needed financing became more available. Kossakovsky has been making the interview rounds since the film’s release, and there’s a (Film at Lincoln Center) compelling segment here: https://youtu.be/lGoWfU8E7DA.
He has a refreshing preference for long takes with dynamic composition. As he puts it, “In the shot itself, there is a story.”
His previous documentaries include a stunning tribute to water and ice (“Aquarela”), a look at the training through which three youngsters are put in order to compete in sporting events (“Graine de Champion”), a meditation on protest in 2012 Barcelona (“Demonstration”), and the changes that occur on a single street in St. Petersburg over the course of a year (“Russia from My Window.”) Clearly, he’s a meticulous filmmaker with a masterful eye.
As he puts it, in his “Ten Rules of Documentary Filmmaking,” “Documentary is the only art where every esthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used esthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe nice people should not make documentaries.”
On the first day of shooting “Gunda,” his crew learned how fluently a pig can communicate. And as a result of this movie, Gunda will be spared the usual trip to the abattoir, but that’s a reprieve rarely enjoyed by stove-intended beasts. It takes a lot of them to satisfy the U.S. per-capita consumption of nearly 100 kg. (220 pounds) of meat each year. Will this movie be the salvation of more animal lives? Kossakovsky is pessimistically hopeful.
“We decided that we are the most important creatures in the world,” says Kossakovsky, “and that that gives us the right to make life-and-death decisions for other animals.” And he adds, almost off-handedly, “We need to respect nature more before we try to change it.”
(B.A. Nilsson, 6/7/21)