Issue 71 (2021)

Viktor Kossakovsky: Gunda (Norway/US, 2020)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2021

gundaThe otherwise lighthearted children’s comedy Babe (1995, dir. Chris Noonan), a film about a pig who acts like a dog, opens in an altogether startling manner. Images of piglets sleeping and sucking their mothers’ udders give way to a wide-angle interior shot of what the off-screen narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) describes as a “cruel and sunless world”: an industrialized factory farm where animals are caged and bred for slaughter. A mother pig is then zapped by an electric rod, leaves her sucklings behind, and boards a transport vehicle to the abattoir. One particularly sad piglet, Babe, sticks his head through the iron bars of his pen and bids farewell to his mother. The film then proceeds to humanize (with the help of an animatronic stand-in) its porcine title character, proving once and for all that barn animals, especially pigs, are more than mere meat. Babe has feelings, memories, and aspirations just like humans (and, per the film’s anthropomorphic logic, canines) do—and, like so many boys, Babe yearns to return to the protection afforded by the womb.

gunda The first shot of Viktor Kossakovsky’s latest film, Gunda, a pig-centric animal documentary, inverts Babe’s opening images. We first encounter onscreen not lively piglets, but the stressed body of a sow. If Babe gives us an image of porcine vitality only to introduce the specter of slaughter and agribusiness hovering over its animals, then Gunda gives us the reverse. The strained noises and contortions of Kossakovsky’s pig, which conjure up onscreen the pain that pigs endure in the lethal production of meat, suggests this oversized pig is on the verge of death. Yet this labored pig is literally in labor; she is in the throes of birthing a litter of piglets, who are then seen greedily sucking her teats and scampering over her body. What strikes us as an image of animal death is, in fact, an image of animal life. The camera, with the help of Kossakovsky’s cinematographer Egil Håskjold Larsen, then brings us inside the stable, where the newborn pigs are loudly oinking and nibbling their mother. This sequence is a celebration of new life. Yet there is a gritty naturalism to these “adorable” images of baby animals: their ungainliness, dirtiness, and hunger are shown in extreme close-up without the assist of background music or voiceover. There’s nothing overly cutesy to these piglets, nothing that whiffs of Babe. This animal film lets pigs be pigs, inviting us to appreciate the rhythms and textures of pig life on its own terms.

gundaGunda’s reversal of Babe’s prologue signals its resistance to that film’s anthropomorphic (and childlike) logic that suggests pigs deserve our respect because they are just “like us.” In Gunda, Kossakovsky alternatively contests that pigs are deserving of our ethical consideration because they are pigs, with their own capacities for intelligence, creativity, and curiosity. For ninety minutes, Gunda follows the hyper-mundane realities of a pig family (along with chickens and cows) through a mix of tableau shots and long takes. It re-creates an experience of non-narrative pig-time onscreen, languidly cycling through a series of unconnected sequences in which nothing “happens.” Gunda is an hour and a half tour of a porcine experience of the world, exhibiting how pigs foster meaningful relationships to their environment and to each other. The film tests the patience of audiences, who betray an anxiety when confronted with unstructured time.

gunda In this way, Gunda finds itself in dialogue with a contemporary trend in arthouse cinema: slow animal film. The meteoric popularity of fast-paced, narrativized animal documentaries since the turn of the millennium, such as Planet Earth (BBC, 2006) and March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005), allude to our latent recognition of humankind’s own species insecurity on a climactically changing planet, which we displace onto other endangered lifeforms onscreen. Often with a focus on charismatic species and megafauna, these “ecodocs” (like Babe) make animals legible by humanizing them via naming, storylines, cinematography, and orchestral scores. The slow animal film, by contrast, mounts a resistance to these human-centric documentaries with an extreme mode of temporal distension, belying the anthropomorphic mix of education and entertainment (“edutainment”) that is presumed to be on hand in the animal kingdom (for slow animal cinema, see McMahon 2019). Films like Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration (2001), Emmanuel Gras’s Bovines (2011),and Denis Côte’s Bestiaire (2012) probe animal realities beyond their “use value” for humans, and, in turn, trigger philosophical ruminations on the nature of duration, eventhood, and cinema itself. These slow, “boring” animal movies defy anthropocentric ways of seeing the world, challenging our belief in human centeredness by exploring nonhuman vitalities. The languor of these animal movies, moreover, oppose the accelerated pace of agro-capitalism structuring animal lives. With Gunda, Kossakovsky is one of the first Russian-born filmmakers to engage this subgenre of art cinema. There is, indeed, a striking resemblance between Gunda and Gras’s Bovines, which likewise takes an interest in ordinarily non-photogenic animals (cows) overdetermined by their status as meat in human society. Self-reflexively, Bovines and Gunda are anti-ecodocs. The very name “Gunda” is a Scandinavian term meaning “female warrior,” framing Kossakovsky’s sow as a figure of resistance.

gunda Yet for all its focus on animal agency and ingenuity (one thinks of the protracted scene of chickens intrepidly wandering out of their cage and surveying their surroundings), Gunda does not elide the power dynamics determining its animal subjects. Though Kossakovsky moves beyond an anthropocentric frame of reference—not one human appears onscreen for the duration of the film—he does not minimize the anthropocentric conditions in which these animals exist. Such ambivalence is imbedded in the opening scene of the sow giving birth. When she first stands up, we see a tag pinned through her ear. Her litter, we learn, is in service of a farm, marked for the abattoir. These pigs speak to the thanatological drive of the food industry: animal lives acquire value through their death. Albeit more subtly than Babe’s, Gunda’s prologue shows how its pigs are doomed by agribusiness. The sow’s body, after all, is being used as a resource by her piglets. It offers her young a necessary source of protein, just as protein-rich pig meat is said to for humans. Pork is the most widely consumed meat in the world, accounting for over 36% of meat eaten globally (FAO 2014). Gunda’s sow is immediately marked as a body for the consumption of others.

It is this status of the pig as a consumable, disposable product (pig farming precedes most other forms of animal husbandry, dating to 13,000 BC) that has informed the representation of pigs in cinema. One recalls, for example, the concussed pig in Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video (1992); the splattered blood of off-screen pig slaughter in Carlos Reygadas’s Japón (2002); the butchered pigs in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) symbolizing slain French revolutionaries; and, in the Russian context, the scenes of mechanized pig disassembly in Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New (Staroe i novoe, 1929) heralding the modern tools of Stalinist agriculture. The place of the pig in film is marked by lethal exploitation, reflecting its role in the human imaginary as nothing but meat. Gunda works against this cultural and cinematic legacy of the pig. Kossakovsky shows us that there is more to porcine existence than meets the eye. He takes us into the secret lives of pigs, but without pretending that these free-range animals operate independently of the anthropocentric strictures encaging them. The moment when the sow is zapped after stumbling into the electric fence demarcating her bucolic pig-paradise is perhaps the film’s most important.

gunda This sort of ambivalence oscillating between animal vitality and animal expiry pervades Gunda in even more profound (albeit inadvertent) ways. The film’s striking images, which are captured in lush black-and-white film, cannot help but correspond to an aesthetic history of visual artists fetishizing the pastoral as a realm of simplicity and beauty to enthrall human beings. Kossakovsky’s images of contented piglets, grazing cows, and plucky chickens, all enveloped in tall grass and the idyllic sounds of birds, connote a nostalgic attachment to pastoralism that is inextricable from the commercialization of animals in modern life. Associations between animal life and an organic ideal redouble the visual economies of anthropocentric networks (zoos, farms, the pet industry, etc.) making animal lives available to human utilization. Images of “happy pigs” and “happy cows,” indeed, often underwrite advertisements for meat. Kossakovsky’s hypnotic slow-motion scene of cows frolicking in a pasture, sutured into a different context, could easily function as a commercial for free-range beef. The editorial hand of the filmmaker here is at odds with Gunda’s non-interventionist aesthetic. It shows how Gunda’s bucolic investments cannot escapethe commodity fetishism driving the subjugation of animal life in capitalism’s visual regime.

What’s more, Gunda archives the animal death necessary to the circulation of agricapital in an even more visceral sense. Extracted animal protein (gelatin) is needed for the production of photosensitive celluloid: dead animals, in a way, give life to film’s moving images. There is a carnal entanglement between the animal emulsion industry and the cinema; the remains of livestock are reified not only as meat, but also as film stock. The high-quality black-and-white film used in Gunda to intensify its pro-animal ethic is itself an animal byproduct. The potential of non-anthropomorphized interspecies empathy and solidarity teased by Gunda is, ultimately, enabled by the conditions of captivity, fetishism, and industrial slaughter that the film otherwise critiques.

gundaThe tensions underlying Gunda, however, do not invalidate its criticisms of human-centric biopolitics. Rather, the film’s internal contradictions reveal that, in resisting one kind of anthropocentrism, humans are liable to proffer (inadvertently) new anthropocentrisms, which need to be sniffed out on their own terms. It is impossible for humans like Kossakovsky to fully elide their complicity in existing species hierarchies, however noble their intentions. Gunda lays bare the potential and pitfalls of engaging nonhuman life with human technology. Like all Kossakovsky’s avant-garde ecodocs (Aquarela, 2018; ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, 2011), Gunda productively resists cinema’s anthropocentric legacy, while, inevitably, falling prey to it. Thinking through animal movies, we must keep in view the fact that the industrial abattoirs of the American Midwest are what inspired Henry Ford’s early twentieth-century models of time-motion efficiency, which, in turn, captivated early cinematographers aestheticizing streamlined motion (Shukin 2009: 93). The deathly animal origins of film weigh on Gunda’s cinematic attention to life. Our anthropocentric shadow hovers over Gunda at every turn, hence Kossakovsky’s play with chiaroscuro lighting.

The final ten-minute scene of the sow agitatedly searching for her young after they are packed onto a menacing truck headed to the abattoir in a way that invokes the ghosts of Auschwitz à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (Le Sang des bêtes 1949) reveals cinema’s usefulness, despite all its imperfections, in forcing an ethical confrontation with animal killing. While this “sentimental” scene of a mother separated from her kin might be dismissed for its Babe-esque anthropomorphism, it stages an emotional critique of the farm and forms a temporary basis for cross-species solidarity. Though the sow’s “thoughts” remain opaque to us, something is clearly happening to her—something unpleasant, which she registers in the only language available to her: grunts, stares, and fitful movement. Her traumatic response intimates the non-linguistic nature of human-animal mutuality, making it impossible for us not to care about this pig, and the lives of all those like her.

Raymond De Luca
Harvard University

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Works Cited

McMahon, Laura. 2019. Animal Worlds: Film, Philosophy, and Time. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Shukin, Nicole. 2009. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gunda, United States; Norway, 2020
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Viktor Kossakovsky
Screenwriters: Viktor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera
DoP: Egil Håskjold Larsen, Viktor Kossakovsky
Editors: Viktor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera
Sound designer/sound editor: Alexandr Dudarev
Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen
Co-producers: Joslyn Barnes, Susan Rockefeller
Executive producers: Tone Grøttjord-Glenne, Joaquin Phoenix
Production: Louverture Films, Saint & Usant
Premiere: Berlinale 23 February 2019

Viktor Kossakovsky: Gunda (Norway/US, 2020)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2021

Updated: 2021