“Ethics, Aesthetics, and a More Fortunate Pig”

Belinda Smaill (Monash University)

The opening shot of Gunda announces the pace and spirit of the film – framed by the small entrance to a barn, an industrial-size sow lies on her side as the camera tracks slowly forward to show a tiny piglet climbing over her. The camera remains focused on the scene and the attention of the spectator is eventually rewarded by the gradual reveal of a multitude of piglets. Gunda is a study in observational aesthetics with the pig, who we can assume is Gunda, the central character. Over the course of four seasons Gunda attends to her offspring as they mature, their lives in the fields and farmyard observed with the sound of oinking and snuffling filling the soundscape.

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Later sequences in Gunda depict a small herd of cows and a group of chickens. The chickens arrive on the farm in a neglected state with one maneuvering with only one leg and others with worn-down features. This signals their status as rescue chickens, presumably from a battery farm. The largest portion of screen time, however, is dedicated to Gunda and her rambunctious offspring. The film conveys the action in long takes, black and white photography, and a soundtrack absent of music and voiceover. The result is an expressive intensity that focuses attention on the animals, their bodies, interactions, movement, and sounds. The lingering takes of the camera heighten this attentiveness and, from the opening frame, invite us to be with Gunda for extended periods in the spaces of the farm. The rhythms and materiality of the phenomenal world are brought to the fore, shot in lush 35mm.

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For those familiar with John Berger’s essay, “Why Look at Animals,” it is difficult not to view Gunda as an antidote to his claim that animals have “disappeared” in industrial modernity as they have become removed from our everyday lives. However, a reading that focuses broadly on renewed attention to animals, and species co-existence, would flatten the film’s meaning into abstraction. Arguing for a more targeted reading, I suggest that Gunda is better understood as a provocation that ambitiously seeks to experiment with the limits of cinema’s identificatory processes and offer an ethical directive. In both instances the last scene in the film is crucial.

In contrast to the conditions required for the factory farming of pigs and chickens, Gunda’s home appears idyllic and the film an aesthetic affirmation of humane farming practices. Yet, by the conclusion of the final shot (a single fifteen-minute take), a more complex portrait has emerged. The film transforms into a story of loss as Gunda’s piglets are taken away in a truck by unseen humans. The camera then lingers on her desperation as she searches for them in the farmyard. This ending seems to betray the spectatorial investment the film has fostered in the farm as a safe haven. It shreds all pretense and exposes the reality—that farming is always predicated on the destruction of animal life. This narrative trajectory becomes easier to grasp in light of the childhood experiences that the director, Victor Kossakovsky, recounts in interviews. He befriended a piglet when staying on a farm only to eventually witness it being slaughtered and eaten for a family dinner. This movement between intimate connection and despair mirrors the trajectory of Gunda and cements the film’s ethical rationale—Kossakovsky states that anyone who has watched the film must certainly be persuaded towards veganism. Some viewers, I suggest, will agree and read the scene as tragedy, a call to arms for animal justice and the defining moment of the documentary. For others (and it seems for some reviewers) Gunda is “heart melting,” and “touching,” or a chronicle of nature’s cycle of birth and death. Many reviewers, moreover, focus on the film’s phenomenological qualities and describe its cinematic innovation while glossing its ethical directive. As documentary scholars will be aware, in this lies the problem of observational style. Without voiceover or intertitles (and in this case, human language), wholly observational film crafts its narrative through image and editing. Gunda opens onto multiple interpretations, only a portion of them connected Kossakovsky’s stated intention to change minds about the human exploitation of nonhuman animals.

Films as different as Georges Franju’s Le Sang des Bêtes (1949), Frederick Wiseman’s Primate (1974), and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (2005) all share a concern with turning their observational camera towards animals to ask us to look again at the actions of humans and the impact of human culture. Gunda differs from most observational documentaries featuring animals in the sense that it seeks to comment on human exploitation of animal lives and also to explore animal subjectivity. In this second respect it succeeds in pushing the limits of cinema. Gunda asks us to consider, to what degree can we recognize, through sound and image, animal consciousness? Film is always governed by principles of anthropocentrism in the sense that its central endeavor is to facilitate a human experience, usually by depicting human-centric worlds that humans can identify with. Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda troubles this anthropocentrism, while, perhaps, not displacing it.

Kossakovsky’s position on the capacity of documentary is clear when he states: “I believe that what’s most important in documentary is the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. They’re connected in a way in which no other art form can connect them.” There is a tension in this connection in Gunda that is masterfully orchestrated but not fully resolved. Part of the problem concerns the purpose of the close attention to the lifeworlds of animals experiencing freedom and joy, whether they are chickens who tentatively explore their novel and unfettered environment or piglets sniffing at the new rain outside their barn. By exploring the quality of lives fully lived, Gunda sidesteps the clear horrors of factory farming and its brutalization of animal bodies. This approach leads one reviewer to claim that Kossakovsky is not targeting the “inhumanity of farming practices: if he had wanted to show that, he would have chosen a different, less fortunate pig. It’s the chauvinism of our species – our unwillingness to grant that other creatures have emotions and affections that mirror our own and deserve our respect.” This is a curious misreading. It also shows the difficulty in balancing an aesthetic project that explores the relative liberty that farms can offer and the singularity of an ethical demand.

“Pearls Before Swine”

Isaac Rooks (Independent Scholar)

While it feels like an inappropriately anthropocentric statement, the most interesting thing about Gunda is the human factor. It’s difficult not to think of the artist’s influence on Gunda’s stylized imagery, and in promotional materials, Gunda’s director forcefully articulates the reticent film’s ideological intent. Although people never appear onscreen in Gunda, the documentary contains plenty of reminders that humans are manipulating the situation. Obviously, features like the animals’ enclosures indicate the presence of humans, as these spaces are constructed and managed by people. Humans also intrude directly and dramatically at Gunda’s conclusion, when a truck arrives to take away the young pigs, presumably for slaughter. Notably, we only see the machine in this scene, not the people doing the removal. By not showing the farmers or their interactions with the animals, Gunda misses out on context that could nuance our understanding of the relationship between humans and animals in this situation. These unseen farmers have a vested interest in the wellbeing of their livestock, yet their nurturing leads to death. By using the truck to visualize humanity’s apparent intrusion into the tranquility of the ‘natural’ world, Gunda instead ends with a simplistic opposition between the rural idyll and cruel mechanization. It’s a blatant ‘message’ moment that stands out from much of the film, and it signals another crucial element of human manipulation: the filmmaker’s careful control of the presentation.

Gunda lacks common framing and storytelling elements such as narration or musical scoring that normally foreground the role of the documentary filmmaker. Yet, the production is too aestheticized and idiosyncratic to allow viewers to forget the craftspeople working behind the scenes. One gets a sense of this looking at the critical praise for Gunda, where admiration for the text bleeds into interest in the methods of production. Manohla Dargis references the dolly tracks used to follow the pigs and directs readers to an article detailing how director Victor Kossakovsky “used a stationary disco ball… to light the [barn’s] interior.” Guy Lodge singles out the work that went into Alexandr Dudarev’s apparently naturalistic sound design, which an Indie Wire article notes, without derision, is “as fake as any Hollywood shoot.” Jessica Kiang describes the environment seen in the film as “Kossakovsky’s construction.” It’s an appropriate label, as what appears to be a single farm was, in fact, cobbled together from locations in different countries. Kiang clarifies that the “secrets of the film’s production… cannot detract from its achievement.” Rather than assuming fans of the film would admire the artist’s ingenuity, Kiang’s disclaimer anticipates that some might interpret these production techniques as a betrayal of the film’s authenticity or verisimilitude. Discussing the film as Kossakovsky’s creation aligns with another trend in critical and promotional discourse: framing Gunda as part of a documentarian auteur’s oeuvre. These references to Gunda’s production and Kossakovsky’s artistry potentially direct audiences to extratextual elements that expand and clarify one’s understanding of Gunda’s mission. So while Gunda itself centers on animals, the reception of the film is preoccupied with the humans offscreen, and Kossakovsky has encouraged this preoccupation.

Although Gunda does not explicitly articulate its thesis, Kossakovsky has filled that editorial void when promoting the film. In interviews, Kossakovsky frequently recounts Gunda’s ‘origin story’, describing how, as a child, he bonded with a piglet that his relatives killed for a holiday feast. Having become a vegetarian after the incident, Kossakovsky mentions with pride anecdotal accounts of viewers saying they could not eat meat after watching Gunda, which Kossakovsky describes as the most “beautiful” reaction. Yet, Kossakovsky views the issue as extending beyond concerns about personal ethics. He identifies the move towards vegetarian or vegan diets as being crucial to addressing climate change and “saving the planet.” Kossakovsky describes how he would begin each day’s shoot with a “motivational talk” reminding the crew “why this 20-years-in-the-making passion project was so vital for humanity.” Kossakovsky claims that his rhetoric during the production caused others to direct him towards Joaquin Phoenix, after the actor used his Oscar acceptance speech to address animal rights issues. Kossakovsky credits Phoenix’s involvement as an executive producer with boosting Gunda’s profile, making it a more potent “weapon” capable of advancing an “empathy revolution.”

Kossakovsky’s forceful rhetoric gives new perspective on how Gunda might function as a quietly radical text, even as the text itself avoids registering as an explicitly political work. Critics describe Gunda as having revolutionary potential; the discussion does not just focus on Gunda’s ability to offer a richer understanding of its animal subjects, but also on its potential to retrain perception. Critics saw in Gunda an opportunity to experience elements of the world that might be overlooked in life, and certainly in mainstream narrative cinema. Gunda’s lack of a traditional narrative and its long takes align the documentary with principles of slow cinema. Ecocritical scholars have argued that slow cinema could encourage a holistic understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it. However, slow cinema’s rarified qualities raise questions about its ability to connect with or impact the worldview of the general public. As a relatively accessible example of slow cinema, with its short runtime and charismatic animal subjects, Gunda represents an important example of slow cinema’s potential to breakthrough to a larger audience. The context of its distribution during the pandemic also provides an additional boost to Gunda’s appeal and resonance. On one hand, Gunda offers a meditative retreat into a bucolic space during a period of isolation and dread that prompted reflection and reassessment for many individuals. The pandemic may also have primed viewers for Gunda’s ecological subtext. It’s not just the increasingly frequent and high-profile environmental disasters that have occurred concurrently; Kossakovsky describes the pandemic as the natural world punishing humanity. Indeed, Kossakovsky argues that Gundasort of predicted the pandemic in the form of a warning.” Yet if Gunda can potentially reach larger audiences than most works of slow cinema, it only represents a relative breakthrough. Judging from Kossakovsky’s statements, Gunda aims to have an impact on the real-world. Kossakovsky claims: “I don’t make films for myself. I don’t make films for people who believe in nature, or only for vegetarians. I make films for everyone, even those who do not share my opinions.” Yet it seems doubtful that a superficially formless chronicle of a pig and other barnyard animals will have an impact beyond a limited and self-selecting arthouse circle. As such, while Gunda invites theoretical and aesthetic concerns, the challenge for scholars and critics lies in anticipating that disconnect and considering ways to bridge that divide.

Kossakovsky points out that his film had one definite effect. Thanks to his documentary “at least one pig will survive until her natural death. Gunda is still alive.” That accomplishment points back to an important fact: while humans may be absent from the frame, they are implicated in the fate of these animals and the planet. Kossakovsky’s film caused the farmers offscreen to conclude that they could not kill Gunda. If his film is going to have a larger impact, many offscreen humans will need to be engaged and affected by Gunda.

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