Imagine a mother raising a large family, nurturing her children from birth, tending to their every need, only to have them plucked from her, not knowing where they’ve been taken. Imagine the mother’s panic and worry.
This is the scenario of Gunda, the Oscar-shortlisted documentary by Victor Kossakovsky. Does it matter that Gunda is a sow and her family a litter of piglets? Not to the director. The inescapable inference from his film is that Gunda experiences emotions just as humans do, and when her children are suddenly snatched, trucked off to slaughter, she suffers terrible emotional distress.
“If you look to Gunda, you see her soul,” Kossakovsky tells Deadline. “Even a chicken has intellect, even a cow has intellect…Don’t be stupid, people. Intellect is not our specialty as creatures.”
The Russian-born director, it will come as no surprise, is an ardent defender of animals and against killing them for food. He says for years he wanted to make a film that would allow viewers to perceive the sentience of beings that are routinely and casually butchered.
“I spent more than 20 years to find a producer,” he recalls. “No one believed in this idea. No one. Since ’97 I was trying to make it.”
Finally, he encountered producer Anita Rehoff Larsen and they embarked on the project in earnest. But Kossakovsky needed a porcine star for his picture. He discovered Gunda on a farm in Norway.
“She looked at me and I knew she was talking to me. She was so friendly immediately, so positive. She was not suspicious,” he recalls. “She was immediately curious to see who is this fat man. I’m big. I’m a little big. She was probably looking at me, ‘Huh?’ Thinking something like I’m a big, big boy. She said, ‘Okay, something similar.’ Then she liked me immediately.”
Kosakovsky likens his leading lady to one of the all-time greats.
“Gunda was like Meryl Streep. Whatever she does it was amazing,” the director raves. “She is actually 60 minutes on the screen. Last 20 minutes, she’s just close up, nothing else. Second to the last shot, five minutes she’s just lying down and looking to her kids, you don’t see anything else but her face.”
Gunda had been inseminated right around the time Kossakovsky met her, he says. Knowing her gestation period, he could plan ahead to capture the birth and observe Gunda raising her little ones. Kossakovsky built a replica of her dwelling to facilitate filming.
“We opened a new house for her. She came and she adapted and she [re-arranged] hay to put it in the way she wanted,” Kossakovsky explains. “Our lens was inside her house moving 360 degrees, but our camera and people were outside. We made it similar to her barn but with the possibility that our lens inside could move smoothly and in any position we needed.”
He continues, “We were sleeping around her, some in tents…That’s why we didn’t lose this magic moment when she gave birth. It was actually the happiest shooting in my entire life.”
Kossakovsky filmed in black and white. Gunda contains no music, no narration, no effects.
“Many people have made films about animals, but they were trying to film slaughter and put voiceover explaining how bad we are and put music with violin, but I said, no, no, no, we shouldn’t do this,” he declares. “I have to use nature language…just watch and try to see how animals are, not how we think about them—how they are. And this is why I made long takes without telling you what to think, but forcing you to look and to understand.”
Kossakovsky also filmed sequences with cows and a remarkably agile one-legged chicken. He says he deliberately focused on animals that are not considered “cute,” unlike our pets.
“We like dogs because they love us. They are friends, they understand us, they support us, they feel together with us. When we suffer, they suffer,” he observes. “But we allow ourselves to not think about the food we eat in the same way.”
Kossakovsky says he used to blame this attitude on the Old Testament, which grants humankind “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over the beasts of the earth” (according to one English translation). But he realized believers and atheists alike generally think it’s fine to slaughter animals. He concludes people prefer to live with blinders on.
“We are killing one billion pigs a year, we are killing a half billion cows a year, we are killing 50 billion chickens a year, we are killing over a trillion fish a year because we believe we are most important,” he insists. “We believe we are the most clever creatures in the world. No, I’m sorry, no. We are the most cruel, yes.”
Noted animal rights advocate Joaquin Phoenix serves as an executive producer on the documentary, which is distributed by Neon.
“Gunda is a mesmerizing perspective on sentience within animal species, normally—and perhaps purposely—hidden from our view,” Phoenix has written. “It is a film of profound importance and artistry.”
Kossakovsky says some people have told him there are more urgent issues to address than the slaughter of farm animals, like political repression and racism. But he sees a commonality between the widely held notion that animals are disposable and similarly destructive ways of thinking.
“We know we are killing animals, but we pretend we don’t. We don’t respect them, we know we mistreat them, but we pretend we don’t. It means in our behavior, we allow ourselves to torture, we allow ourselves to kill,” he tells Deadline. “We have to respect creatures around us, then we will understand easily that everyone has rights to be here, same rights…We have to wake up and we have to feel empathy.”