Art is what we can’t understand. It contains things we can understand, but it also has something we can’t understand. You’re just watching something, and you cry, and you don’t know why. If you are asked why you’re crying, you can’t answer. It’s more than you can explain — Victor Kossakovsky
Victor Kossakovsky’s latest documentary, Gunda, is a beautiful piece of art, a revelation in its simplicity, and one of the most important films of our time.
Kossakovsky struggled for more than twenty years to find backers for the film he wanted to make about pigs, chickens and cows. But with awareness now growing around treatment of non-human animals and the devastating impact of animal diets on our planet and health, Gunda’s time has finally arrived.
Gunda is not what Kossakovsky would describe as a ‘vegan’ film. He offers no images of direct animal cruelty, no slaughter scenes, no music, no human voices to interpret or explain, although the soundtrack is important. ‘I wanted to show how animals communicate. If you look closely, Gunda speaks to us. I didn’t want to drown her voice,’ Kossakovsky said in recent interview.
But if Gunda is not a vegan film, it is also not a meat industry propaganda film, showing only green fields and happy snapshots, while excluding the reality of an animal’s capacity for suffering, their intelligence, their vulnerabilities and disabilities, or the limits placed on their human dominated lives. Gunda is instead a celebration of cinema stripped to its barest and most powerful. An invitation to the senses that doesn’t try to educate but rather asks an audience to simply experience what is in front of them.
The long takes and close shots lead us into the world of the animals, showing them not as ‘products’ or extensions of our human selves, but as unique beings, engaging with each other and the environment around them. The decision to film in black and white was made, Kossakovsky says, after noticing their personalities emerge on screen when the distraction of colour was removed.
I didn’t want to show cute pink piglets — and believe me, they are very cute indeed. I didn’t want to seduce the viewer in that way. It felt to me like black and white makes us focus on their soul rather than their appearance.
Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur in her work with We Animals Media, an online archive containing thousands of accessible images, approaches animals with the same respect Kossakovsky shows to his subjects, although with a focus more directly on their brutal treatment. Like Kossakovsky’s Gunda, McArthur’s imagery moves us beyond traditional binaries of ‘true’ and ‘false’, as J. Keri Cronin notes in her book Art For Animals, to disrupt the ways we think about our relationships with animals.
There is a necessary imaginative leap as viewers reflect on what it might feel like to be the animal depicted in the photograph — the pig awaiting slaughter, the dog rescued from a puppy mill, the hen enjoying the feeling of warm sun on her body.
Film and photography provide powerful mediums for breaking down perceptions that allow animals to be treated as unfeeling objects. Perceptions that are themselves, notes Cronin, ‘the result of a long and entrenched pattern of representation, one that is so readily accepted as “the way things are” that it barely registers as a specific cultural construction.’
Former US Daily Show host Jon Stewart has talked about his shift to veganism coming in part from getting to know animals on the farm sanctuary he runs with his wife:
There was a certain part of consciousness that I never ascribed to animals […] I never really ascribed individuality to them and I think that was the change for me, was interacting in an individual way […] I just thought oh it’s like a blob but they’re real beings.
Showing us something we have never been able to see, or have not wanted to see, is at the heart of Kossakovsky’s Gunda. How many of us will otherwise ever look closely into the eyes of a cow or a pig or witness a mother give birth? Or watch chickens who have lived their whole lives in cages step out on to solid ground for the first time. How many will ever see an old cow, when most are slaughtered at a young age?
As Isa Leshko, in her stunning senior animals portraiture book Allowed to Grow Old, notes: ‘It is nothing short of a miracle to be in the presence of a farm animal who has managed to reach old age. Most of their kin die before they are six months old’. Leshko’s photographs illuminate the unique individuality of each of her subjects to ‘invite reflection upon what is lost when these animals are butchered in their youth.’
While Gunda’s appeal is to a wider audience than more directly confronting animal films like Earthlings or Dominion, Gunda’s impact would be much diminished without the context of their more brutal imagery, never appearing on screen in Kossakovsky’s film, but always present. ‘If I could make everyone in the world see one film, I’d make them see Earthlings,’ philosopher and author Peter Singer has said. But the importance of those films lies as much in their impression on those who watch them as on those who turn away.
In 2011, the Australian ABC’s Four Corners exposé on the treatment of cattle exported to Indonesia, A Bloody Business, stirred public outrage without attracting a large audience. ‘We knew this would not be a high-rating program. It’s a very demanding subject for people,’ said journalist Sarah Ferguson. But just knowing the footage existed, that it had been broadcast, and had been witnessed by others, was sufficient for many to feel horrified. When enough people are willing to bear witness, truth can filter through to collective consciousness, tipping points are exposed, and change becomes possible.
What is important to note, however, is the limited framework generally adopted by mainstream media when presenting stories about animals in Australia and around the world. Representations of farmed animals in particular rarely diverge from an ‘animal welfare’ model, from which the best outcome sought is only for less cruelty to be shown towards the animals involved. As sociologist Nick Pendergrast has said about the Four Corners episode specifically, ‘the problem presented in this episode was how the cows were slaughtered, not the fact that they were slaughtered’.
More generally, Pendergrast explains that ‘by limiting coverage to an animal welfare perspective and ignoring animal rights frames, mainstream media does not provide the public with a good appreciation of the broader issues involved in human/non-human relations.’ By contrast, Gunda, in all that is shown and what is not shown on screen, does offer an opportunity to reflect more deeply on our relationships with other species.
Animal advocates, and indeed famers, watching Gunda, will immediately notice the straw, the barn, the outside digging of Gunda and her piglets; conditions not resembling the way most pigs around the world are raised. In Australia, most pig ‘products’ like bacon and ham arrive from countries where the animal welfare standards are lower than here. But even inside Australia, around ninety percent of pigs are ‘factory farmed’ in intensive indoor systems and subjected to painful procedures that include tail docking, teeth grinding and castration, usually performed without pain relief and ‘resulting in significant pain and distress for the piglet,’ notes the RSPCA. Mothers (sows) face confinement in farrowing crates during and after birth and the daily living conditions for factory farmed pigs are barren and harsh.
A mother is typically only allowed three to five weeks with her piglets before they are removed for fattening. At around five to six months, the piglets are then transported and stunned with carbon dioxide or electrocuted before slaughter. For the mother pigs, the cycle begins again as soon as the piglets are removed, around twice each year. As Animals Australia notes, the mother is ‘trapped in a cycle of suffering to give birth to as many piglets as possible until her body can no longer physically cope and she is sent to slaughter’ at a young age. These are the facts.
Gunda, while spared some of the horrors inflicted on factory farmed pigs, is still trapped (at the time of filming) in the same cycle of forced pregnancies, human domination and grief each time her piglets are taken. When she looks into the camera in the final scene, Kossakovsky interprets what she is saying as ‘what the f**k are you doing?’.
And what the f**k, we must ask, are we doing to Gunda and to the approximately 80 billion animals slaughtered around the world each year for food? In 2018, an estimated 69 billion chickens; 1.5 billion pigs; 656 million turkeys; 574 million sheep; 479 million goats; and 302 million cattle were killed for meat production.
In Australia, in just the final quarter of 2020; 1.6 million cattle were slaughtered, 1.3 million sheep, 5 million lambs, 1.4 million pigs and 170 million chickens, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. All unique, intelligent, playful and loving beings who feel pain and loss, who want to live. Different to us, but in many ways the same.
If our greatness and moral progress can be judged by the way we treat animals, as Ghandi suggested, then we are failing miserably and it is time we developed new relationships with our animal cohabitants. Relationships based on respect for the rights of other species to live freely and free from the suffering we currently inflict on them.
For most of us, eating dead animals is a choice we no longer need to make and it is well past time that we looked these animals in the eye and answered Gunda’s question. What the f**k are we doing?
Susan Metcalfe is a writer and author
Further reading and viewing
We Animals Media: https://weanimalsmedia.org/
Animals Australia: https://www.animalsaustralia.org/
Animal Justice Party: https://animaljusticeparty.org/
Isa Leshko, Allowed to Grow Old: portraits of elderly animals from farm sanctuaries (2019): https://www.isaleshko.com/
J. Keri Cronin, Art for Animals (2019): https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-08009-3.html
Nick Pendergrast, Live Animal Export, Humane Slaughter and Media Hegemony (2015): https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1146&context=asj
Jon Stewart Talks With Joe Rogan About His Switch to a Plant-Based Diet (2020): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz9qT4pdh7U
Four Corners, ABC, A Bloody Business (2011): https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/a-bloody-business---2011/2841918
Animal advocacy/vegan films
Victor Kossakovsky Gunda interviews
Victor Kossakovsky recent films
Vivan Las Antipodas trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTunEnD6Q0k
Aquarela trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xAIuDF25kE
Gunda cinematographer Egil Håskjold Larsen also worked on
69 Minutes of 86 Days trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVvv6_zBZy4