The secret life of farm animals remains a secret, but a fascinating and even poignant one, in this strange and unexpectedly subtle film from the Russian documentary-maker Viktor Kossakovsky, whose last movie, Aquarela, was a disturbing meditation on the climate crisis.
It’s an extended, black-and-white study of a farmyard sow whose name is presumably Gunda, although the humans who would have given her this name are never shown. There are no people. No dialogue. Just animals. The camera follows this sow around the farm, just after farrowing, and we see the tiny piglets suckling; and later these same piglets, much bigger, still suckling and jostling. We also see the sow’s fellow beasts, including a one-legged chicken and some cows who are shown running in slo-mo – the film’s one bit of over-aestheticisation, which is a misjudgment.
Are they all living on the farm together? Maybe not. A closing note on the credits reveals that this was filmed on farms and sanctuaries in Norway, Spain and the UK. Kossakovsky has crafted a fiction, to some extent. (And who knows, maybe the ambient farmyard sounds have also been cheated.) But the film shows something interesting: simply by closing in on the pig’s eyes, it insists on something uncanny. Gunda’s eyes look haunted and sad. The cow’s eyes, on the other hand, seem cold and haughty. Anthropomorphism? Yes, of course.
But there is a painful and even tragic meaning that is hidden everywhere on the farm: all these animals are bred to be used and killed and Kossakovsky enigmatically keeps his camera on Gunda after her piglets are finally taken away from her. Gunda seems confused, disoriented, perhaps even stunned. But there is no emotional history here, no emotional affect. The animal just keeps on existing.
Gunda has something in common with brutally revelatory documentaries such as Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, which showed the reality of animal slaughter. This shows the weird, blank emptiness that surrounds animals when the fact of slaughter is just out of shot, the empty waiting that precedes the main event.
Gunda is released in cinemas on 4 June.
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