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There’s a rich range of voices in Gunda, none of them human. To anyone who cares to listen, the grunts and snorts, the squeaks and squeals, the crowing and lowing communicate plenty. And then there are those faces, those telling gazes, the body language of the movie’s effortlessly captivating stars — chief among them a pig, a chicken and a couple of cows.
Countless films offer invaluable portraits of wildlife, and beloved pets have been at the center of indelible screen stories. But few movies commune with the class of animals that are generally regarded as resources rather than sentient beings. When it comes to attitudes toward creatures who are raised for meat and, in euphemistic foodie-speak, “harvested,” there’s a whole lotta compartmentalizing going on. It’s no wonder it took Victor Kossakovsky a quarter-century to secure financing for a documentary that would put farm animals front and center without explanatory overlay.
The Berlin-based, Russia-born filmmaker pulls in the viewer with images of astounding beauty, as he did in his previous doc, Aquarela, an ode to the mighty power of water. That film had a rock ‘n’ roll pulse, but the quieter Gunda shares its artistic DNA as an expansive vision of life on this planet. With its discreet yet intimate long takes, the new doc rewards patience and attentiveness in every frame.
And it could very well change hearts and minds. Few will be surprised that the world’s most famous vegan, Joaquin Phoenix, has signed on as an executive producer, and his name could surely be a draw. But Gunda is far more than a plea or argument; it’s a gorgeous, gripping series of encounters — and, finally, an unforgettable drama.
The animals in Gunda, filmed on farms in Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom, might be living “free-range” lives compared with their factory-farm brethren, but those lives are hardly free. Avoiding the shock and gore of some anti-meat treatises, Kossakovsky instead, like the astute storyteller he is, zeroes in on his characters, cloven-hoofed or clawed as they may be, building toward a final sequence that’s as affecting as any ever put to film.
With the camera at a respectful distance, the opening five-minute take introduces the title character (her name, of German-Scandinavian origin, means “female warrior”) and her newborn piglets. No cartoon pig — not even the mammal-animatronic combo of actors in Babe — can begin to capture the cute factor of these porcine kiddos, who share the screen with the sow Gunda for much of the film’s running time.
The action might not meet conventional movie standards, but a good deal happens as the dozen or so piglets grow. They tussle for position to suckle, huddle together to nap, play and tentatively explore, and ostracize the limping runt. There are feeding frenzies, and also thank-you nudges to Mom, snout to snout. When Gunda shakes them off and clambers to standing, you can all but hear the “Enough!” of all the exhausted mothers of the world. It’s a while before we see her eyes — until then she’s a body, and a many-teated one at that. Her ear is tagged to identify her as the property she is.
The swine saga is intercut with no less memorable footage of chickens and cattle, who happen to be other major animal sources of human dietary protein. A one-legged chicken hops out of a crate and into a field, cautious at first, soon testing the strength of its beak against a wire fence. Released from a barn, a herd of cattle are captured in unshowy slow motion. When they face the camera head-on, there’s something hard-won in their inscrutable gazes, and possibly accusatory. Two by two they seem to communicate via swatting tails.
Kossakovsky shares DP duties with Egil Håskjold Larsen, and their black-and-white cinematography, with its intensity and depth, can recall the detail of Dürer engravings or the starkness of a chalk drawing. The absence of literal color — though at times you’d swear you can see colors in the grass and wildflowers — heightens every texture, whether of wooden structures, a tree canopy, the startling delicacy of a bird’s comb and wattles or the pointillist beauty of its feathers. It’s an aesthetic choice that perfectly serves the filmmaker’s purpose of investigating the animals’ experiences without commentary or adornment.
Deep in the superb sound mix by Alexandr Dudarev, beneath the animals’ expressions of curiosity, alarm and contentment, beneath the insect buzz, a machine-like hum occasionally churns like an omen. At a certain dreadful point a machine enters the frame.
The devastating final sequence is not what many viewers will expect (and fear) — not exactly. It’s both less and infinitely more, a testament to the power and cogency of Kossakovsky’s storytelling. No party-line screed, Gunda is a soul-stirring meditation on some of our most underappreciated fellow earthlings. For many viewers, it could well be life-changing too.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Encounters)
Production companies: Sant & Usant Production, Louverture Films
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Screenwriters: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera
Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen
Co-producers: Joslyn Barnes, Susan Rockefeller
Executive producers: Tone Grøttjord-Glenne, Joaquin Phoenix
Directors of photography: Egil Håskjold Larsen, Victor Kossakovsky
Editors: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera
Sound designer/sound editor: Alexandr Dudarev
International sales: Cinephil
U.S. sales: UTA
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