There are unique films and then there is Gunda. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky (Aquarela) has created a documentary portrait of farmyard life. There’s no dialogue or narrator. It’s in black-and-white and there are no humans in the film at all. Shot across three different farms in Norway, Britain and Spain – although such is the close-up nature of this observational study, you’d never know it – the stars are very much the animals here.
Gunda, the title character, is a sizeable sow who will take up much of our attention in the 93-minute running time. The first lingering shot sees her newborn piglets scramble out of the barn as they explore their new world. Kossakovsky and his cameraman Egil Håskjold Larsen create a stunning feeling of intimacy here, and in virtually every other shot. This is not the dynamic photography of a David Attenborough-led Planet Earth show, but something far more personal.
The narrative, such as it is, cuts back and forth with some other animals – some chickens (notably, a one-legged feathery creature, which will undoubtedly gain as much sympathy as Gunda and her litter) and a herd of cows. But Kossakovsky can’t help but let his piggy stars take centre stage, as the piglets grow and snaffle milk from their mother. Inevitably, there’s a runt that will also fill your heart with joy.
Whilst this is an incredibly gentle film to watch, swaying to the bucolic rhythms of the countryside, it comes with a punchline which some will find hard to take. Joaquin Phoenix, who used his Oscar acceptance speech when he won Best Actor for Joker to decry mankind’s cruelty towards animals, is on board as an executive producer. Gunda has some darkness to it as well.
This isn’t a pro-vegan movie, but it’s hard to watch it all the way through and not question your own eating habits (if you are a carnivore, that is). It shows the animals as intelligent creatures that deserve to be treated with our respect, and not simply as part of the food chain. Only the hardest of hearts will fail to be moved by this sensitive work.
Gunda is available in cinemas from 4 June. For more details, click here.
Words: James Mottram