Have you ever wanted to adopt a piglet? Or hug a chicken? These were some of the thoughts running through my mind during the unorthodox Gunda, a deeply austere black-and-white documentary told from the perspectives of pigs, chickens, and cows.
The film starts with the mother pig named Gunda, and her little piglets. With their cute snout noses and eyes half open, they’re adorable creatures; huddling together for warmth and protection, they are totally helpless, relying entirely on their mother for comfort and sustenance. We watch them grow up, rambling across the small bounds of their sty and the surrounding area, cut off from the rest of the world by an electric fence.
These scenes are complemented by chickens, including a one-legged one that tries and fails to fly, and cows who bolt out of the barn doors the second they are let out. Like the pigs, these animals are bred, contained, grown, and used for human consumption.
The intent behind the film is clear: to see the “humanity” of these animals and make the viewer reconsider their relationship to eating meat. The black-and-white cinematography — evoking classic arthouse cinema — lends these animals dignity in a way that’s rarely afforded to them. Sometimes it goes too far — especially when the animals look directly at the camera as if they are posing for a hard-hitting magazine exposé — but it remains relatively effective.
Gunda is a difficult watch — not because anything particularly dreadful happens, but due to the intense lengths of the takes. Shots of Gunda last over 20 minutes long, including a coda that feels like it will never actually end. Formally, this is a deeply accomplished work, absorbing us into this animal world with excellent, immersive sound design and eye-level camera shots. It has a Planet Earth-level of extraordinary detail, all the more fascinating for the way it uses that perspective for middle-of-the-road animals we all are very familiar with. As an emotional experience, however, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Therefore, while it would’ve been crass for Kossakovsky to force animals — who by nature, can’t exactly act in a conventional way — to fulfill the requirement of a plot, a tighter structure wouldn’t have gone amiss. Gunda perhaps would’ve worked better as a short film, or perhaps a more wide-ranging exploration of all farm animals; the movie strangely erases the perspective of sheep, goats, horses, llamas, and donkeys. After all, surely vegetarianism is the definition of an intersectional struggle?
Gunda has already garnered the endorsement of Joaquin Phoenix, who is given an executive producer credit. It does a far better argument for vegetarianism than his rambling Oscar speech, mostly because it doesn’t preach anything, but lets the images speak solely for themselves. Nonetheless, as it doesn’t fully descend into the truly horrifying elements of animal farming — for example, how they are killed and processed into meat — it’s unlikely to convert anyone to Kossakovsky’s point of view. As an experiment in animal representation however, it follows last years’s Space Dogs as a fascinating step forward for the form.