Some were stunned earlier this month when Joaquin Phoenix used his fully anticipated Oscar victory as a less predictable opportunity for a passionate plea for animal rights: it was certainly the first time that artificial insemination with cattle was discussed amid the glitter and glittering tears of Hollywood’s greatest night. What we did not know, however, was how neatly the speech of the actor would fit in with his next tribute: as executive producer in the simple but completely amazing documentary “Gunda” by Victor Kossakovsky. It is not hard to imagine his words as the unspoken subtext of this completely dialogue-free character study with animals, in which a huge sow on a Norwegian farm starts an emotional arc of motherhood without human voice-over or two anthropomorphism: just the still, search power from an attentive camera.
The clear breakthrough title of this year’s inaugural Encounters competition at the Berlinale, “Gunda”, was sharply picked up for the North American distribution by Neon, which took shape in dealing with crowd-friendly eco-docs, after the hit from last year “The Biggest Little Farm” and the Oscar-nominated “Honeyland”: Given the proper structure of the festival circuit, this unique arthouse item could follow the trajectory of either or both. It should easily be the most striking release ever for Kossakovsky, the dynamic Russian non-fiction formalist who has become a sort of pan-European author in the last decade and whose recent Sony Classics-driven “Aquarela” – a powerful globe trotting study of water in multiple, shifting forms – set the precedent for his last exercise in wordless earth observation.
Shot by the director and Egil Håskjold Larsen in sharply structured, high-contrast black-and-white on farms in Norway, Great Britain and Spain – although all fields and pens feel a bit thanks to the rich monochrome treatment – maybe ‘Gunda’ looks like it first glance, no match for the rising, “Planet Earth” -style wonder of “Aquarela.” But the unusually intimate point of view is spectacular in itself. A piglet is perhaps nicer than a waterfall, although we fall short of our “awwwws” when the reality of peasant life comes to the fore. Without visible human interaction, Kossakovsky treats ordinary farm animals as subjects, not objects, of intense fascination and empathy: a crucial distinction in a film that challenges our society’s perception of cattle as, well, less alive than livestock.
Although the look of the film will eventually include beautiful cattle and a doughy one-legged chicken with the same awe, the focal point – or star, if you want – remains the eponymous Gunda, a majestic mother pig introduced in languid chiaroscuro close-up as its many newborn piglets wrestling out of her, scrambling over her and greedily sucking her teats. It takes a few minutes before we immediately see her face: for her children she is a resource rather than a being, just as pigs are for the people who use them differently for food. The absence of any narration (or, indeed, any emotionally leading music score) allows the viewer to reflect on such ironies and atrocities at their own pace. Kossakovsky does not intend to teach or confront his audience with moral rhetoric or shock, but to promote understanding of the life of farm animals during life – not only valuable at the time of death.
This was previously achieved naturally in fictional pig adventures such as “Babe” and E.B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’. “Gunda” is shaved from any humanized imagination and creates a protective feeling only by showing the boring daily routines of the pigs, which sound strange to each other in strange places, while the piglets grow, play, slurp and are instinctively separated in rows – with an abandoned runt left behind. For her part, Gunda seems to resist the demands of raising children with as much exhausted, annoyed good humor as any new mother, although in all the power struggles between her and her restless brood, she remains well at the top.
Kossakovsky and his team achieve this flowing, tactile naturalism through an ingeniously disguised artifice, often photographing the pigs in a more camera-equipped reproduction of their pen; The extraordinary sound design by Alexandr Dudarev intricately combines diegetical and recycled sources to create the feeling that a farm buzzes and chats with life, even with its human inhabitants permanently out of sight. Segments of the aforementioned underdog chicken and the cows – given a fantastic cinematographic input to charge slow motion while being released from the stable to pasture – contribute to this carpet, although they do not have the clear, clear narrative brightness of Gunda’s get a story that we know cannot end happily. Kossakovsky frames the inevitable with both tactful restraint – rest assured, this is G-classified material everywhere – and a grim, quietly wringing impact, since the first (but still faceless) human imposition is done on this pastoral idyll.
Describing “Gunda” as any form of pro-vegan screed would, however, give a wrong impression of the ruminative, poetic delicacy of his approach. His radiantly beautiful images and softly compelling stories do not tell any eyebrow message, but a broader, holistic view of where we and the animals we breed, use and consume fit into a single circle of life. Charlotte, the calligraphic talented spider of the classic children’s novel, saved the bacon from Piglet Wilbur by weaving the words “a pig” into her web, although the expression was ambiguous and double-edged: did they mean he was a hell of a pig, or just an old pork? “Gunda” labels his heroine in the same way, although it doesn’t matter much whether she is a pig or not some pig: Perhaps some more attention is needed.