Speak cow or forever hold your peace
The chicken is a noble beast,
The cow is much forlorner;
Standing in the pouring rain,
With a leg at every corner.
Who speaks for the animals? The question really gets the noggin jogging. Once it was Animal Liberation author Peter Singer. At a point in the 1970s it was TV’s Johnny Morris on Animal Magic. Now the mantle appears to have fallen to Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, a thesp determined to use his powers for good and platform to disrupt cosy cucknivore fallacies. Having produced multiple vegan documentaries, attended pig vigils and amplified the anti-dairy movement on the biggest stage possible, he now executively produces Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky’s documentary Gunda, dropping a metric tonne of free publicity in its lap, ensuring it doesn’t wind up as some forgotten arthouse curio.
Gotta be pig, yeah
Give thanks to Lord Ganesh he did as Gunda is a powerful slave’s eye view of life on the farm from the point of view of the animals. The titular Gunda is a portly old sow living her best life on a shit-sucking farm. Shot in black-and-white with no narration, music, voices or humans, it forces Kossakovsky to up his game in the ultimate show-don’t-tell medium. We join Gunda during the miracle of childbirth, popping out a succession of oinkers that couldn’t be cuter if you tied a bow on them and called them Arnold. Mom looks exhausted by the whole business but before you know it she’s bonding with the fam, nudging them into line with her snout and offering up her swollen titties for them to feed on and ruin.
It’s a fascinating watch as they clamber over each other in the feeding frenzy, inhaling each other’s scent, delighting in their physicality. It’s soundtracked by a weirdly seductive symphony of breathy guttural noises – snuffles, snorts and the occasional scraping of hooves. Some of the litter fare better than others and as assuredly as we knew that Lames Cordung would insert himself into the Friends reunion, we know that deranged psychopath Mother Nature will ruthlessly cull the weak and inept, showing about as much care and concern for Pig Dignity as Brett Anderson shows when he slaps the manpig in the face in the Animal Nitrate video.
Mother Gunda however is an altogether more compassionate beast. She pays particular attention to the piglet whose siblings are already silently calling “the runt”. He makes a naff effort of feeding at her tiddies and somehow manages to get himself trapped under a clump of hay. Big G rescues his sorry arse and steers him to the hot breathy embrace of the clan. The action couldn’t be more mundane but we are already engaged. The point has already been made “we’re real – we think, we feel”. No one watching is looking at Runty Joe and thinking “If he makes it through, he’ll make a great suede moccasin one day.” Carnists will watch this while chomping on hotdogs saying “dude, animals are human too…” Amazing what you can achieve when you depict things as they are.
Chicken coop for the soul
Now we turn to poultry. In a field somewhere there’s an incongruous shitsack of a coop crammed with unfortunate chickens. Maybe they’re from a factory farm and are being given a brief respite from their carceral hell like a condemned man tucking into KFC before heading to the chair. What we can say is that when they get the chance to exit their prison they step gingerly. Is it a trap? Is life ever anything but?
Plenty of feathers seem to be missing among this crew and one of them is even missing a leg, quite possibly chewed off by one of her sisters during a bout of confinement-induced psychosis. She hops and flaps as she tries to maintain some semblance of balance. Her right leg is doing fine. I’ve got nothing against her right leg, the problem is neither has she.
She comes up against a wire fence – the bars of her prison cage mocking her. She tries to force his way through but she’s as cucked as The Sun political editor Harry ‘Cuck’ Cole when he is forced to report on Boris Johnson’s marriage to Carrie Symonds which is to say significantly.
Hopalong spots Gunda. Runty Joe is getting by. Still at the back of the pack but no longer in imminent danger. It’s a humdrum life for sure but whose isn’t? I like how Joe keeps popping up. He’s like the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List and as I recall things worked out okay for her.
We are over halfway through the movie before the cows arrive. They may not have the swinely charm of Gunda’s litter nor the dinosaur grandeur of the chucks but cantering through the fields in slo-mo they retain their bovine swag. How is life among the herd? The stereotypes, it turns out, are true. Expect significant amounts of cud chewing, repeated lowing and you and your mate in a standing 69 position swatting flies away from each other’s faces with your tail. It makes you think of teenage girls braiding each other’s hair even though you can practically smell the cow dung and methane burps as they fertilise the earth and turbocharge climate change.
Such is the life of a ruminant. Glamorous it is not but there are few things more soulful than direct eye contact with a cow. What ancient wisdom lies within? Whatever it is they know, they’re not telling.
Sty with me
Time passes, perhaps a few months. Back at the pig shed there’s a rain shower, enjoyed enormously by Gunda’s children who are thriving under her care. Her teats continue to take ferocious maulings, forcing her to take lengthy daytime naps to recover. Nonetheless, she looks on proud as punch as they buzz off to do whatever it is perma-hungry toddler pigs do. It’s love if you want to call it that. What we can say for sure is that in nature mothers will sacrifice themselves to save their children and Big G would take a bullet for any one of these little bastards, not that she’ll get the chance.
Because the day you knew was coming comes as it always must – the day Gunda’s children are taken from her to be slaughtered. Gunda runs over and watches as they are driven away. She’s confused. They’ll be back soon, right?
SPOILER: they are not back soon.
I really love your tiger light
You might think that enslaving, maltreating, killing and eating animals would preclude you from declaring your love for them. Well, that goes to show what you know. We are a nation of animal lovers on a planet of animal obsessives. We can’t get enough of them! We love them in the way Joe Exotic loves tigers, the way Gerald McClellan loved his fighting dogs and Ike Turner loved Tina. That disconnect between perception and reality is the biggest challenge we face, in animal rights in general and veganism in particular. Gunda helps bridge that gap by portraying the victims of animal agriculture in their day-to-day existence.
It’s one thing to valourise Br’er Bear, Animal Kwackers or the heroes of Beaver Valley, quite another to show the animals we kill and eat as complex feeling beings. Once we acknowledge that we have common cause with all sentient creatures, it becomes harder to turn them into handbags and haggis. If this simple story of a lass with four legs and a big heart helps effect that change then its work here is done.