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► Gunda is in cinemas from 4 June.
From Bambi (1942) to Babe (1995), Animal Farm (1954) to Zootropolis (2016), our films focused on animals have largely been a cinema of fabulist anthropomorphism – stories of humans in sheep’s (and wolves’) clothing, as it were.
Yet lately, moved by a mix of curiosity, guilt, greater technological prowess and creativity, there has been a renewed effort to explore the world through non-human lenses – to perceive outside our skin, and by extension our worldview, with its presumptions and entitlement.
The venture begs questions of science, ethics, even metaphysics – hence the use of philosophers, psychologists and political reformers as interlocutors in films from James Marsh’s test-chimp tragedy Project Nim (2011) to Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s animal-rights quest Unlocking the Cage (2016) to Peter Mettler and Emma Davie’s eco-sensorial experiment Becoming Animal (2018) with the writer David Abram. This year’s Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher (2020) part showed and part narrated the filmmaker Craig Foster’s burgeoning relationship with a complex otherworldly intelligence.
Other films have sought to dispense with human language entirely and to inspire and provoke us purely through the direct-cinema tools of vérité sound and vision, inviting us to interpret: Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s bug’s-life portrait Microcosmos (1996) advertised new leaps in non-human-scale filmmaking; Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (2012) was a banner film for detached, versatile unmanned cameras – though its depiction of a floating, grinding charnel house brought us eye to eye with sea death more than sea life, thus harking back to Georges Franju’s impassive abattoir short Le Sang des bêtes (1943). And lately both Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Taskafa, Stories of the Street (2013) and Elizabeth Lo’s Stray (2020) have harnessed their cameras to stray dogs in Istanbul – though, again, when we look at humanity’s best friend, what we see reflected back has been ourselves.
The latest filmmaker to attempt to doorstep our fellow animals is the Russian Victor Kossakovsky, and there can be few more qualified. A master of fluid, sometimes ecstatic camerawork, evocative sound and acute, roving, interrogative perception, Kossakovsky says that he first took up photography as a child to document the animal life he adored.
As a professional, he made his name with vérité and observational encounters on 16mm – and then early digital video – with common-or-garden Russian street and country lives, most gloriously in the classic Belovy (The Belovs, 1992), a rambunctious portrait of clashing adult siblings at farmwork and rest.
(He also won admirers in the documentary world for his ‘Ten Rules for Documentary Filmmaking’, which the filmmaker and critic Robert Greene parsed on our website in 2013; number 9, “Documentary is the only art where every aesthetic element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used aesthetically”, stands as one of the great insights into the form.)
Over the past decade, powered by his international reputation and hi-res video cameras, Kossakovsky has (not unlike the career leap made by his hero Krzysztof Kieslowski) translated his nonfiction poetics into a more globe-trotting register, firstly with the gloriously formalist yet sensual ¡Vivan las antípodas! (2011), playfully connecting and contrasting the textures of life on opposite sides of the world; then with the film-student collaboration Demonstration (2014), which found opportunities for operatic choreography in Barcelona’s anti-austerity protests, and with 2018’s high-frame-rate Aquarela, a tone poem and ode to the power and presence of water across our planet.
Conceived side by side with that giantist project, Gunda appears miniature: a black-and-white study of semi-free-range animals in five chapters, three of them close up on the titular pig and her litter, with two punctuating chapters studying a one-legged hen as it explores what seems to be newfound freedom, then a herd of cows who pose and dance for their portraits with remarkably un-herd-like individuality.
Having interviewed Kossakovsky about Aquarela in person during the 2018 BFI London Film Festival, during which time he appeared to plug the film’s subject matter by pouring water down his shirt, a Zoom interview about Gunda felt sadly caged in. That didn’t stop him holding forth at some length, less on the film’s onscreen poetry than on its offscreen, pro-vegan conceptual underpinnings.
Nick Bradshaw: It’s on the face of it a very small and simple film, with so many questions and ideas beyond the frame – not to mention human beings, whom you’ve been increasingly stripping out of your films. Is this a work you’ve had to build up to?
Victor Kossakovsky: Exactly. Slowly, slowly, fewer and fewer people in my films, more and more animals and butterflies and condors and whales… they’ve kind of pushed away the people. Then in Aquarela water actually killed a human [on camera], so it’s in a way very symbolic.
When you make a film like ¡Vivan las antípodas! or Aquarela or especially Gunda, you question if we really are the most important creatures in the world; if we really have a right to dominate this planet, to kill billions of animals every year.
In 2020 we killed 1.5 billion pigs, 66 billion chickens, almost half a billion cows and goats and sheep and two billion rabbits and ducks and… a trillion fish. We allow ourselves not to think about it, but we are killers. And not only do we kill them, we freeze them, package them in plastic, transport them… and before that, we cut forest and grow cornfields to feed them. So when we speak about climate change and saving the world, I think we are hypocrites.
When you make a film like Gunda, you question if we really are the most important creatures in the world; if we really have a right to dominate this planet, to kill billions of animals every year.
I made Aquarela and Gunda at the same time, so I had [the work of] scientists who study waters on one side of my table and scientists who study animals on the other. And those scientists never met in labs, they never saw one another’s data, but on my table they met.
And I knew that a billion people have no access to water. At the very same time we have one billion cows on the planet today, and each of them needs minimum ten times more water than a human. Total madness, right?
We leave so much crap behind us – bones of animals, mountains of plastic, plus huge mountains of intellectual garbage – speeches, interviews, films, all this crap I am talking now. If you brought it all together for my funeral, people would see how ridiculous what we are doing is. Whereas an animal is born, some time it will vanish, and that’s all.
So for me to make another movie about humans and how we feel – “Oh, I love her but she doesn’t love me…” Come on! We still don’t know about 96 per cent of the world, and we’re just talking about us. There are so many unbelievable things around us and we still focus on ourselves.
Gunda looks at animal interiority as a similarly undiscovered landscape. How much can documentary cinema help us probe that?
Forgive me for being pathetic, but I believe this is why cinema exists – to show you something you are unable to see. It’s like: some people have a great voice, you’ve never heard such a beautiful voice, and [a film] can bring it to you and you say, “Wow!” Listening to such a voice opens something inside of your soul, right?
Cinema is a huge weapon, and you have to use it with responsibility.
This is why cinema appeared, to show you something that normal people are not able to see, and that’s why I am here, to show you. A director has different eyes, can see a little more, is able to show to people what they normally don’t see – or what you don’t want to see, like what is on your plate every day. Something you don’t want to think about.
I believe what we are doing is stealing time from each other: every time you watch my film, you’re giving me 90 minutes of your only life. So I have to give you back something you’ve never seen or experienced before. Especially if you’ve paid for it – not only when you bought a ticket, but even when you pay tax for culture – then again with [your time]. This is why I have to be responsible; otherwise what am I doing in life, if I’m just taking money and making some crap and pretending I’m a filmmaker? Cinema is a huge weapon, and you have to use it with responsibility. Cinema is supposed to wake up and find why we exist. Not to tell stories: it’s not enough. [Sighs]
Are there any other films that influenced how you conceived Gunda?
I don’t know Becoming Animal but I like Peter Mettler’s films generally. My friend Michael Glawogger was thinking in the same direction, but unfortunately he died [in 2014, aged 54]. Filmmakers normally go to slaughterhouses and show how we kill animals and what horrible conditions they live in, but that shifts the focus from animals to what we are doing, and my goal was to show how they are – that animals are not something but someone.
That’s why I didn’t use voiceover or even music, to keep it clear and just illuminate. Cinema and animals, nothing else. Long shots, no editing, no voice or text, no music and no other emotional pressure, so you finally see animals as they are – suffering, enjoying life; intelligent, with all the emotions we have. They feel, experience freedom as we would do, but they are not human; not better than us, just different. They have a right to be here, to be free, happy, just like we do.
Animals feel, experience freedom as we would do, but they are not human; not better than us, just different. They have a right to be here, to be free, happy, just like we do.
When you make such a film, you have no chance to turn back – you cannot forget. Because you know this is real. I mean… I didn’t eat meat since I was four, when I lost my piglet – he was my childhood best friend and my relatives ate him. But making this film, I saw how making it changed the young people on my team, one by one; in a restaurant they would ask: “Do you have any vegetarian food?”, “Do you have any vegan food today?” Young people write to me or come up at screenings and say, “Why did no one explain this?”
Normally I do not believe cinema can change something, but with Gunda I have to admit surprise. Maybe my generation of people, or maybe your generation, are already in a way hopeless, and for them it will be difficult to stop eating meat. But for young people, maybe they have a chance to change their life, and this why Gunda works beautifully.
The film is an object lesson in terms of relinquishing control and following where your subjects lead. That said, you’ve clearly determined the shape of the film – and heavily worked the soundtrack?
Yes! With Aquarela, my end goal had been to make it without music, just with a thousand small sounds from water and ice; but at the last stage of editing we gave up and said, “Okay, people are not ready to see such a radical movie without any help – we need a composer.”
It was really important not to use music – to eliminate human emotion from the film and give the audience the chance just to listen to the sound of animals.
But here it was really important not to use music – to eliminate humans and human emotion from the film and give the audience the chance just to listen to the sound of animals, just as the camera is always at their eye-level. That’s why we did Dolby Atmos, to get all this variety of complex sound. And of course it’s risky to make a 90-minute film without words or music, but [sound recorder and designer] Alexander Dudarev is exceptional, and I’m so happy we did it.
As for the structure of the film, we did plan it differently, as three 30-minute stories. But when we filmed Gunda we already had 60 minutes. Obviously it would have been a pity to make her scenes shorter – but it would also have been different if it were just Gunda. I wanted a trinity – not a mythological trinity but a real trinity of chickens, cows and pigs, the animals people eat every day. In a way it’s my apology to animals, because I know I cannot change anything, but at least I made it, and at least one pig will survive until her natural death. Gunda is still alive.
Gunda gets down and dirty with a sow
By Ben Nicholson
Your world inside out: ¡Vivan las Antípodas! and Kossakovsky’s Ten Rules
By Robert Greene
‘When Emmanuel Lubezki saw Aquarela, he sent me his hat’ – Victor Kossakovsky on his colossal ode to water
By Matthew Thrift
Aquarela review: the shifting shape of water
By Ben Nicholson
Stray takes a dog’s eye view of the streets of Istanbul
By Robert Hanks
Leviathan review: a wet and wild documentary like nothing you’ve seen (or felt)
By Nick Pinkerton
Animal Farm: behind the scenes on Britain’s first animated feature film
By Jez Stewart
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy