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‘Gunda’–Animals on their own terms
‘Gunda’, the new film by Russian director Viktor Kosakovskiy, is a nature documentary like you’ve never seen before. Filmed at farms across Europe, ‘Gunda’ follows a mother pig (the eponymous Gunda) and her piglets, a one-legged chicken and her compatriots, and a herd of cows. Strikingly, the film avoids the use of narration, soundtrack, or inserted title cards to tell its story–in stark black and white, we see the lives of these farm animals unfold at their pace. Human beings never appear on the screen. Without the voice of Werner Herzog insisting that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder,” or the good-intentioned anthropomorphism of David Attenborough, viewers are able to interact with the animals on their own terms–and draw their own conclusions.
The initial spark for the film first came to Kosakovskiy when, as a child in the Russian countryside, he made friends with a piglet who had been brought indoors for protection for the cold Russian winter. Kosakovskiy and the piglet became friends, only for the animal to be eventually slaughtered for New Year’s Eve dinner. The experience stuck with Kosakovskiy throughout his life, and the filmmaker began attempting to adapt the experience to film in 1997. Over twenty years later, with cries for veganism becoming a rallying cry from environmentalists and activists across the globe, Kosakovskiy’s vision has finally come to the big screen.
The advocacy of Joaquin Phoenix
It’s encouraging, even as we receive dire news reports about the state of our planet, that some of the globe’s most influential people have advocated for a shift towards plant-based diets. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has strongly advocated for the world’s wealthier nations to transition to plant-based meat. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry keep a chicken coop at their Montecito, California home, full of hens rescued from a factory farm. The list of vegan celebrities grows every day and includes athlete Colin Kaepernick, Senator Cory Booker, musician RZA, and actors like Jessica Chastain, Elliot Page, and Cynthia Erivo. Perhaps no Hollywood star of late has been more outspoken about veganism than Joaquin Phoenix, who used his 2020 Best Actor Oscar speech to emotionally advocate for better treatment of animals. Quoting his late brother River, Phoenix ended his speech with the lyric, “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.”
Phoenix was so taken with ‘Gunda’ that he joined as an executive producer, and ‘Gunda’ may not have achieved quite the same level of success without the actor’s endorsement. Director Paul Thomas Anderson also gave the film a glowing review, saying “‘Gunda’ is pure cinema. This is a film to take a bath in — it’s stripped to its essential elements, without any interference.” ‘Gunda’ has been called ‘experimental’, and ‘slow cinema’, but filmgoers should not expect something as laborious as Béla Tarr’s ‘The Turin Horse’.
The creatures featured in Kosakovskiy’s film are very pleasant company–we human beings have spent thousands of years growing accustomed to their routines and idiosyncrasies. Without the shocking slaughterhouse statistics and visuals of carnage that sometimes populate vegan documentaries, the only pleas for change in ‘Gunda’ come from the eyes of the animals themselves–or, to put it more accurately, the pleas come from the ache of our own human hearts, as we recognize in these creatures our common desire for peace and a life without fear.
Good and Evil in Black and White
Directors have often turned to black and white to present a moral starkness that can be lost when the world is muddled by the spectrum of color. Watching a film in black and white makes us especially aware that we are watching a story unfold, which attunes us to a finer grain of detail and emotion than we might otherwise perceive. Black and white cinematography has always had its die-hards, with films like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The White Ribbon’ utilizing the reduced palette to probe deeper into questions of the presence of good and evil in the human soul.
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Black and white Cinema may currently be experiencing a renaissance. Recent films like ‘Roma’, ‘Passing’, and ‘Malcolm & Marie’ use the contrast to contemplate stratification at both societal and intimate levels. Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’ uses it to increase the intense psychological conflict between a pair of isolated lighthouse workers (played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) who are slowly going mad.
There’s also a trend for directors to re-release their own films in black and white to encourage audience members to revisit their work with fresh eyes. George Miller revisited Max Rockatansky and Imperator Furiosa with ‘Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome’. Bong Joon-ho recut his 2020 Oscar-sweeping film as ‘Parasite: Black & White Edition’. Shortly after ‘The Snyder Cut’ released on HBOMax, Zack Snyder followed it up with ‘Justice League: Justice is Grey’. Many audiences stated, after watching these editions, that they’d felt as if they’d watched entirely new films.
For ‘Gunda’, black and white imbue the natural rhythms of its animal cast with both cosmic intensity and earthy mundanity. When we meet Gunda the mother pig, she gently snores in the entryway of a straw-bedded wooden structure, her body blocking entrance and exit. Suddenly, her grunts intensify like an outboard motor struggling to turn over. Her little piglets are pestering her, seeming to simultaneously desire to explore the outside world and to receive the comfort of sustenance from their mother’s milk. As the piglets anarchically begin to spill beyond the improvised wall that is their mother, she slowly wakes up.
It becomes clear that she is still in the process of giving birth, and the piglets we have already met are experiencing their first day of life. Periodically, new piglets enter the frame, still slimy with amniotic fluid. The ‘older’ siblings crowd around the sticky newcomers–one wonders if they do so in the spirit of camaraderie, competition, or perhaps a mix of both. We see the intelligence of these creatures–scientists tend to rank pigs as some of the smartest animals, rivaling octopi, dolphins, and chimpanzees. Over the span of a brisk 93 minutes, we come to know and love these pigs, as well as the chickens and cows we meet later. Perhaps that love is the true natural way of things.
‘Gunda’ is currently playing at select Cinemas.
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