A single sow and her piglets is the subject matter of Russian documentary master Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda. In the film, animals which are usually thought of as meat are here observed as fellow living beings.
After his well-received documentary Aquarela (2018), which poetically tackled climate change, Gundacan be considered an indictment of the meat industry. Both are, in essence, political films, trying to change our minds about important – and related – issues. In the case of Gunda, which is dedicated to Ally Derks, former director of IDFA, these ethical intentions led to high-profile endorsements by Joaquin Phoenix, credited as executive producer, and director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Gunda is a portrait of a pig (a Norwegian pig) and her piglets. Ten, if I counted correctly. We watch them up close, in long takes, in their small shed, out in the field, bothered by flies, rooting in the mud. Compared to the factory farming industry, their surroundings look positively idyllic. We see their individual hairs, eyes, skin in razor-sharp 4K images. (Kossakovsky, who shot Aquarela at 96 frames per second, which is unprecedented for a feature documentary, keeps pushing the limits of digital documentary filmmaking.)
But there is no David Attenborough voice-over here. Indeed, as in many films by Kossakovsky, there is no explanation at all. No voices, apart from those of Gunda and her children. Kossakovsky refuses the narrative manipulations of most nature documentaries, which not only present studio set-ups as recordings in the wild, but also edit disparate shots into traditional story arcs for dramatic effect. (A typical example being the single shot of an animal’s face which can be made to look either surprised, scared, hungry, or otherwise – the famed Kuleshov effect.)
None of that is to be found in Gunda. Kossakovsky has stated he ‘wanted to make a film without patronizing or humanizing [the animals], without any sentimentality’, which is admirable. And when we see the piglets raising their snouts to drink rainwater dripping from the roof, it’s easy to empathize anyway. Something similar happens when the cows, in one of two intermezzos that feature other animals (the other one starring a one-legged chicken), storm out of their barn, having obviously been locked up for a long time, running ecstatically until they reach a fence. Their resulting mooo can inevitably be interpreted as disappointment.
These moments of psychological identification are few, however. The mother sow and her children sleep, lie down, and walk around. Pigs have been demonstrated to be as intelligent as dogs – if not more so – but very little of this curiosity and playfulness is on display here. Instead, we are shown a tough world. Mother Gunda finishes off a newborn piglet, who can’t walk well, with a single kick, causing a piercing last cry. And throughout the documentary, drinking at mother’s teats remains a chaotic every-piglet-for-himself struggle. This is honest filmmaking, showing the lives of animals as it is, not as we would romanticize it to be. But it is not necessarily endearing.
Kossakovsky has proclaimed at Berlinale that ‘after this film, meat consumption is impossible’, a criterium that, for me, the film doesn’t deliver on, even though I felt sorry for Gunda at the end. I will not give away any spoilers, but we all know these things never end well. It is the universal story of the food industry, after all. The fact that Gunda is filmed in black-and-white strengthens this idea of universality. This pig is clearly all pigs. And also all other animals kept for food.
This universality fits Kossakovsky’s oeuvre well. For his water documentary Aquarela, he filmed in Russia, the US, Venezuela, Portugal and elsewhere. And for his masterwork ¡Vivan las antipodas!(2011), he filmed people living on opposite sides of the earth, coupling Spain and New Zealand, Hawaii and Botswana, Argentina and China, Chile and Russia.
The titular hero of Kossakovsky’s first feature Losev (1989), a Russian philosopher, held, as Kossakovsky once told me, that “the universe was one whole, from which you cannot remove a single thing. If you remove anything, it will no longer be complete. It will no longer be the universe. Which means that every single detail is important. A caterpillar or a butterfly are as important as people.”
Following that logic, for Kossakovsky a pig is just as important, just as universal and just as worthy of documentary treatment as all the philosophers, all the water, or all the antipodal opposites to be found on our planet.