Gunda (2020)

Growing up next to farmland I always had a sense of the rhythms and pace of the lives of farmyard animals, but only occasionally would I pause to really observe them. I remember, for instance, watching a ewe call for her young lamb,and the lamb torn between returning to mother and exploring the green fields, both sheep ‘baah’ing to one another in standoff that lasted more than twenty minutes.

Its this perspective that Victor Kossakovsky brings us in his wordless farmyard documentary Gunda, a feature-length film that invites the audience to slow down and see the world as his subjects do.

In 2018 I attended a Q&A by Kossakovsky at the UK premiere of his previous film Aquarela, an immersive documentary about the power of water featuring vast lakes of ice, terrifying waves at sea and powerful hurricanes. When the director was asked about his next project the audience expected something similarly spectacular, but instead were bemused and puzzled as he got very excited about making an observational documentary about the life of a pig. At the time I couldn’t quite decide if he was pulling our legs, but that’s indeed what he went on to make.

Gunda is a stunningly unique film, and worth experiencing on a big screen. It’s very different from a conventional nature documentary with mating rituals and dramatic predations – for a start I can’t recall seeing a David Attenborough BBC wildlife spectacle about pigs, cows and chickens! It’s also nothing like the BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch broadcasts where presenters get enthusiastic about glimpses of everyday hidden nature in the British countryside. Instead, Gunda invites us to experience the pace and scale of these farm animals’ lives.

There’s no voiceover, no music and very little drama, this is purely observational, inviting us to perceive things at a pace and intensity that the animals we’re watching do. Shot in a crisp black-and-white that somehow gives the film a very naturalistic texture and focus, it’s strangely captivating.

Part of its success is the lack of drama, we just watch these animals get on with their daily existence and we have time to contemplate. There are only five sequences in the entire 93-minute duration: a pig (the titular ‘Gunda’) with its newborn litter, some chickens wandering through the undergrowth, the piglets being encouraged to explore their field, a benign herd of bulls in their field, and then a final return to the pigs.

It’s also about scale. To draw us into their worlds the camera is frequently at eye level with the animals we’re observing and manages to get remarkably close to the subjects. The tiny piglets look fragile and helpless, but from the camera’s perspective the mother looms huge. We zoom in even closer to the chickens, which on the cinema screen look like benign dinosaurs roaming a primordial countryside, their huge taloned claws pacing the ground, almost terrifying from our viewpoint amidst the grass. By contrast, the bulls seem smaller than in real life, shot from overhead drones or framed against oversized hedgerows, their powerful bulk diminished from our vantage point.

People talk about living ‘in the moment’, a sort of immediacy without conscious thought of past or future, of history or intentions. Gunda takes us into ‘the moment’ of its animal subjects, their actions seem to be a blend of reaction and instinct. Otherwise their intentions are elusive: sentient of course, even expressive at times, but still mysterious. Survival is one element – the piglets desperately, hungrily clamouring over one another for access to their mother’s milk. The sow maternally, worriedly searching for one of her young who has got buried in a pile of straw. But what are they thinking of? Why did the chicken cross the field? Watching them so closely, we can’t help but wonder. There’s always the temptation of anthropomorphising these animals, but Kossakovsky’s observational camera keeps that human impulse at arm’s length.

This is a profoundly peaceful film, at least for most of it. These creatures simply exist without fear of threat; a bucolic, tranquil existence. It’s only towards the end, having spent more than an hour contemplating these animals and what characteristics we might share with them, that we are reminded of the harsh relationship these ‘food products’ have with humans. Despite their relatively fortunate free-range existence, ultimately their fate is sealed. An agonising final scene of Gunda confused and distressed, a final roaming shot that seems like it’ll never end, ultimately gives a very human meaning to this fascinating contemplative film.

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