Gunda opens to a pig in a prone position with her head sticking through an opening in the barn. It takes a minute to realize the sow isn’t sleeping, but rather giving birth. Slowly, the newborn piglets begin tumbling out into the world. Cutting to a reverse camera angle, we see the 12 to 13 baby piglets desperately trying to latch onto mom for their first meal. The runt of the litter struggles more than the others. Award-winning filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy runs this first segment just over 19 minutes. There is no dialogue. No human on screen. The soundtrack is all-natural from nature: the snorts from mama sow, the squeals from piglets, and unseen birds chirping.
Our second segment finds roosters in a crate. Clearly new to the surroundings, and likely never-before “free” to roam the land, these chickens cautiously explore as the camera focuses on their tentative initial steps from the cage and startled reactions to birds. A one-legged rooster captures our attention as it makes its way through the grass and over fallen logs. It’s likely the longest amount of time a movie camera has been dedicated to following roosters around.
We then head back to find the piglets have grown substantially. We don’t know how much time has passed, but we watch along with their mother as the youngsters play in the field, fight with each other, and bully their youngest sibling. Gunda, the mother sow, watches over them just as any mother would watch over her kids. Our third group is introduced as the barn door opens and the cows are released. They romp into the fields like school kids at recess. Some of the cows stare directly into the camera as if to inform us they are ready for their close-up. It’s fascinating to see how they use teamwork for an ingenious head-to-tail solution to the annoying flies that relentlessly pester them.
The final segment returns us to the pigs as they display the same feeding frenzy as one might witness at the buffet on a Carnival cruise. An ending that will surely evoke emotions in viewers, though maybe not at the extreme of Gunda herself. Filmmaker Kosakovskiy leaves us wondering how a black-and-white film with no dialogue or human characters makes such an impression as it focuses on farm animals. Pork, chicken, and beef…clearly it’s no coincidence that he chose three staples of the American diet. There is no lecture on animal rights, and none of the brutality of other “raised for food” documentaries is shown. But the message is there. It was filmed on farms in Norway, Spain, and the UK, but the locales matter little. Director Kosakovskiy previously brought us the excellent Aquarela (2018), a documentary showcasing the nature of water and ice, and here he is assisted by Egil Haskjold Larsen with cinematography and Ainara Vera with editing. It’s an unusual film, and one meant to inspire reflection and thought…and hopefully change.