Gunda brings filmmaking back to its very core: the moving image.
Gunda opens with a single shot of postpartum tranquillity. Our heroine lies in a bed of straw as her heavenly babies emerge into the frame. A litter of piglets snort and screech as they fight for their mother’s milk. Gunda, the sow and star of the film, looks through the camera with her haunting and eerily human eyes and we are greeted with a fellow mortal.
Viktor Kossakovsky’s documentary about the lives of farm animals is a deeply moving and mesmerising message about veganism. Unlike its counterparts it does not seek to shock with slaughterhouse footage, frightening numbers or menacing voice overs, it merely asks the audience to take part in the existence of its cast: a sow and her new-born babes, a one legged chicken and a motley crew of cows. The outcome is an hour and a half of luminous black and white scenery; its soundtrack is nothing but howling winds and birdsong as we are confronted with the guttural sounds of the animals we put on our plates.
Cinematography is key to our encounters with these animals. Man’s dominion is no more when we are brought down to their level. Cameras placed inside the sow’s hut capture the light which seeps through the wooden cracks and shimmers like water, creating halos around the angelic piglets. The camera tracks our one-legged chicken friend as he frolics through the woods, unbothered by his impairment. Cows thunder and gallop through a field like the bovine Sound of Music. Interspersed are head-shots of the herd as they look broodingly into the cameras like the movie-stars that they are.
We witness Gunda raise her babies over an unspecified amount of time. They bounce and play in the mud as their mother watches on from her bed of straw. But it’s not all pigs and roses. There are some tail-biting moments in the film when, in an attempt to find the runt of her litter, Gunda accidentally steps on her baby. We hear the shrieks of her child struggling and the mother panicking. Thankfully, the piglet appears to survive.
It’s one step for chicken and one giant leap for animal kind as we watch the birds tentatively step out of their claustrophobic prison in order to stretch their wings. One bird looks particularly roughed up by their journey, its feathers falling off and its beak in tatters. But we are reminded that they are not completely free when the birds reach the farms border, where they begin to peck and poke at the wired fencing which imprisons them.
The realities of the slaughterhouse eventually come to pass. The piglets are a little older when we first encounter the world of man. There is confusion as a tractor comes into frame; its wheel dominates the shot and the piglets grunt and shriek in confusion. But we finally understand when the tractor leaves and Gunda is left alone. Just like that, her children have been taken from her. For the final few minutes of the movie all we are left with is her pain as she searches for her babies. Confused and defeated, she gives up. The cycle will continue for her as long as humanity interferes with the life of other beings.
At its heart, Gunda brings filmmaking back to its very core: the moving image. Kossakovsky does not seek to shock with any kind of audio-visual vulgarity nor does he attempt to manipulate our response. Our emotions as we observe these animals are purely organic. But we can all deduce its message: these creatures are like us in many ways and deserve our compassion. I admit, it’s not a film everyone would want to sit through. After all, it is an hour and a half of various shots of farm animals. But it is a relaxing, gorgeous, and at times magical encounter with the living, breathing animals we make contact with in our kitchens every day. I would say, if you’re in the mood, give it a try, and perhaps after watching it you might feel differently the next time you tuck into a hamburger.
Gunda is showing at Glasgow Film Festival from 7 March