One of the surprising things about Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s wordless black-and-white documentary about the lives of some farm animals, at least in retrospect, is that it was shot on three farms in three different countries. While watching the film in a state of varying degrees of unease I was constantly under the impression that Kossakovsky never left the same half-acre of field and barnyard. And in a sense this realization, after having read the production notes following my viewing, that in fact the world depicted was not an integrated place brought home to me how easily a filmmaker can make an emotional case by manipulating things a viewer might take for granted.
Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but Gunda has little in common with conventional nature documentaries. It treats its subjects as animals at the mercy of their own milieu without trying to help us understand how they feel, and yet we do feel for them. Most of the storyline, as it were, is about a sow raising her piglets. The movie starts just after she gives birth, and while the newborns are cute their juxtaposition to their larger parent makes for queasy viewing (it ain’t Babe, babe). It’s all slobbery wetness and sucking and sometimes interpig violence, which may be play, but under Kossakovsky’s lens you wonder. At one point, the sow tramples on the runt of the litter and the viewer isn’t completely sure if the piglet survives. But Kossakovsky doesn’t linger on the notion, and thus the story takes on a life of its own, continuing through the weaning weeks to adolescence before the inevitable takes place—this is a farm, after all—a process the director handles indirectly but with no loss of tragic implication.
Occasionally, he leaves the pigs to look at some other livestock, namely a herd of cows and some wayward chickens. Since everything is shot from an animal-POV, meaning close to the ground, as well as up-close-and-personal, the film has a claustrophobic feeling that makes you want a wider view to allow for a more complete picture of the environment these animals occupy, but that might confound Kossakovsky’s purposes, which seem to be for us to identify with these animals without anthropomorphizing them. The distributor stresses that the executive producer is Joaquin Phoenix, a famous vegan and animal rights advocate, so, at least from a commercial aspect, the movie has a target audience, but I wonder if other vegans and animal rights advocates will come away from the film with the kind of meaning they expect going in. This is how barnyard animals really live, but we can’t help but put it all into a narrative box.
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Gunda home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 Sant & Usant Productions