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Gunda is in UK cinemas.

Victor Kossakovsky’s new documentary, Gunda, follows on from the director’s previous film, the audiovisual collage exploring water’s might, mystery and majesty Aquarela (2018), both as counterpoint and complement. Where Aquarela revelled in the awe-inspiring grandeur and terrifying power of water, Gunda luxuriates in the tranquil, day-to-day life of the eponymous sow and her piglets on a Norwegian farm. However, both films are aesthetically distinctive and experiential documents interested in examining humanity’s relationship with an element of the natural world.

In the case of Gunda, conversation surrounding the film has largely focused on the attachment of the famously vegan Joaquin Phoenix as an executive producer. It’s an understandable point of interest in discussion of a work that spends most of its 90-minute runtime endearing its subjects, a herd of farmyard pigs, to its audience, before reminding us, in no uncertain terms, of the pigs’ ultimate fate and purpose as livestock.

In his 1977 essay Why Look at Animals?, the theorist and cultural historian John Berger lamented the shift – exacerbated by capitalist society – in our association with animals from being symbols, messengers and the subjects of the earliest human art, to mere providers of leather and meat. Berger’s writing feels like an appropriate touchstone for a film that seems to be attempting to redress that shift in some way, by genuinely placing the animal back in the centre of the frame.

Gunda (2020)

The beautiful, crisp monochrome of the film’s images, captured by the director and Egil Haskjold Larsen, has several simultaneous effects. It helps to reduce the distraction that vibrant colours may have on the attention of the viewer which, as a result, remains on the pigs’ twitching snouts. Secondly, it plays on our familiarity with monochrome photography in two ways, by giving the film a timeless quality that we associate with black-and-white images and a mode that seems to draw out the most precise details.

This final point, and the adoption of the techniques of portraiture, seem to inform the film’s compositions. Aside from a brief sequence following some cattle in which the camera is more withdrawn, it typically remains low to the ground and in close proximity to its subjects, offering something akin to a pig’s-eye view. Similarly, the soundtrack is entirely natural, effectively field recordings of the local countryside, filled with birdsong. Both of these choices enhance the sense of verisimilitude in the film, creating the sensation that we are sitting alongside the pigs and, in some way, sharing a brief moment in their lives.

The effect is helped by the complete absence of voiceover or contextual narration of any kind. In many instances, the more information we are given – the more we intellectually know about an animal – the more we are distanced from it or placed above it. By withholding this knowledge – indeed, that the sow is named Gunda and that she lives on a farm in Norway are facts gleaned from publicity materials rather than the film itself – we are brought ‘down’ to the pigs level, in a position of greater affinity and empathy.

Gunda (2020)

However, the absence of narration, music and other devices that typically feature in cinema to guide the viewer is also what stops the film from tipping overtly into what Kossakovsky has referred to as ‘vegan propaganda’. Although audience members with a certain pre-existing set of beliefs will take the film to be positing a clear and unwavering message to meat-eating society – especially in its final ten minutes – the film itself remains a little more clear-eyed. By placing us close to the pigs’ lives while resisting the temptation to narrativise, Gunda allows viewers space to observe, ruminate, and formulate their own position in response to what they are seeing and experiencing.

In his essay, John Berger suggested that there is a dualism in our relationship with animals: “A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork.” The key word for Berger in this sentence is ‘and’, which he highlights is not ‘but’, arguing that humans who are matter-of-fact and intimate with animals are capable of embodying both facets of this ancient relationship in concert, rather than contradiction. He then juxtaposes this with the horrified disconnection of urban observers; a reminder that our own reaction to Gunda’s conclusion will largely be symptomatic of our own experiences with nature.

And therein the power of Kossakovsky’s film, and his approach, arguably lies. Because the audience is wordlessly present with an experience that they must parse for themselves, the lessons and reflections are potentially deepened, more personal and impactful. Berger described the abyss of non-comprehension across which humans look at animals, and Gunda attempts to bridge it, just a little.  

Further reading

“In a way it’s my apology to animals”: Victor Kossakovsky on his pig family portrait Gunda

By Nick Bradshaw

“In a way it’s my apology to animals”: Victor Kossakovsky on his pig family portrait Gunda

‘When Emmanuel Lubezki saw Aquarela, he sent me his hat’ – Victor Kossakovsky on his colossal ode to water

By Matthew Thrift

‘When Emmanuel Lubezki saw Aquarela, he sent me his hat’ – Victor Kossakovsky on his colossal ode to water

Aquarela review: the shifting shape of water

By Ben Nicholson

Aquarela review: the shifting shape of water

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