'Gunda': How a Pig (Plus a One-Legged Chicken and Some Cows) Became the Stars of an Oscar Contender for Best Doc Feature

Courtesy of Neon

For 'Gunda,' director Victor Kossakovsky, who had been trying to make the documentary feature since 1997, spent two months filming the pig and her family of piglets.

"My call is for empathy," says Victor Kossakovsky, the filmmaker behind the black-and-white documentary, which required him to film the daily lives of farm animals for several months.

"What if I will film animals which normally you meet on the plate?" was the question that Russian director Victor Kossakovsky asked when he set out to make Gunda, a black-and-white documentary feature that follows the lives of a pig named Gunda, her piglets, a one-legged chicken and some cows.

The filmmaker, who as a child hoped to be a ranger and protect nature himself, spoke to THR about how he pulled off the intimate film, which required him to film the daily lives of farm animals for several months.

Where did the idea for this film come from?

I was thinking about it all my life. When I was a kid, I spent a winter once in the countryside between what was Leningrad at that time and is now St. Petersburg, and Moscow. And it was a very cold winter. The people I lived with had a little piglet, and they brought it into the house because it was very cold. He became my best friend. We were running around, enjoying life and enjoying time together. And around New Year's Eve, he became dinner. So then when I became a filmmaker, I wanted to make [a movie about animals] so much.

How did you find the right pig to feature?

We were planning a four- or six-month research trip to find the animals, but luckily I found her on the first day — it was the first farm we visited, close to Oslo. It was the first pig we saw. She just came to me. It was so clear. I turned to the producer and said, "We're done. We don't need to search anymore." It was so easy because she immediately communicates with you without a voice. This actually is the best quality of any actor: when he looks to you and you know what he wants to say without his even saying a word.

Did you have any issues with the animals being skittish around the cameras?

I said to the producer, "What we have to do is dedicate our time to these animals. We cannot come for one day. We have to respect them. We have to feel their space. We need to spend time with them so they respect us." So we built a house similar to Gunda's original house, but with the ability to have lenses inside the house and my team outside, without disturbing Gunda. Some days she'd be moody, and we wouldn't film. But day by day, she became nice, like a friend.

While I won't spoil it, the ending of the film is quite emotionally devastating. Do you hope it encourages viewers to become vegetarians

My call is for empathy. It's time to understand we are not alone here. We have dominated the world without permission. Who said that we are most important? Why we are killing animals by the billions? It's absurd. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that we love not to think about it. We know food did not appear from the tree. We know we kill it. But we decided not to talk about it. We decided not to think about it. We feed our children, and we don't explain where it's coming from. This is what I believe is wrong. So that's why I wouldn't say my film is about, like, everyone's supposed to be vegan. My film is about that we should be respecting life around us.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.