Greg and Zanna feast on the piggy delights of Gunda.
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After years of railing boringly against three act structure and the strictures of the Hollywood system, I couldn't have been more delighted to sit down in front of a black and white movie with no dialogue, no human voice at all, no music, no apparent story and no sense of anything happening beyond the candid random wanderings and snufflings of a selection of farmyard animals.
I became intrigued by the rebellion of my mind at the lack of action and the long sequences of piglets walking around after their mother. I found myself especially relieved at the first cut, after several minutes of looking through a small barn door, from which piglets would occasionally emerge, but I quickly grew antsy about the new scene, which was mostly the same action, but with the piglets having grown fractionally larger.
Occasional variety came in the form of the farm's other animals: cows running meaninglessly around a paddock, chickens standing around next to each other. "What's going on?" my mind demanded. "What's the reason for these interminable scenes of animals not doing much?". But I fought down these questions because I knew they were based on assumptions derived from a lifetime of watching a certain type of film, and I understood this movie wanted me to challenge them.
I attempted to quiet my monkey mind. I practised acceptance. I tried to bend my mind to the idea of a movie as an object with potentially infinite qualities, of which the Hollywood system has decided we are too dumb to enjoy more than a tiny fraction.
It wasn't easy. "Eh?" I thought as the camera spent a good period right in tight on a chicken face, then even tighter on a chicken leg. And so on, throughout. It's hard to say I enjoyed the majority of the movie, at least in the way we have come to define "enjoy".
A few minutes prior to the end, an event takes place which causes the significance of the previous 80 or so minutes to be retrospectively reshaped and repurposed. The idea that the movie is an exercise in staying in the moment is shattered. Then it ends, at which point its power continues to grow. Much of its work comes in the slow unfolding of your reaction in the minutes and days after its end, when it lodges inside you and demands a response.
The type of film demanded by the Hollywood system is an implicit argument against the idea that real life is worth watching. Gunda is the counter-argument. Like life, it's occasionally joyous, occasionally horrendous, sometimes hard, sometimes funny. But mostly it's monotonous, and the ending is inevitable.
Cinema is so often about overstimulating the audience - give us more action, more drama, more shocks, more feelings in ever-increasing doses lest we, god forbid, get bored. We're an embarrassing species. The film studios' desperate need to keep us engaged makes both us and them seem moronic. Gunda does the opposite: It's understimulating. The opening shot of the film - a sow, lying on the barn floor, her snout sticking out through a pig-sized doorway - is four minutes long. It contains a slow push in but no other camera movement and reflects the pace of the remaining 90 or so minutes of the film.
It's an incredible accomplishment to make a film that maintains your attention for that duration with no people, no dialogue, no human voice at all. Greg and I can be insufferably high-brow but neither of us is even capable of going to the toilet with just our thoughts alone to keep us occupied. We have succumbed to the modern condition and fill every silence with our pocket computers, so when I read the synopsis of Gunda, I was scared for us. Would Gunda reveal our pin-sized attention spans and the gravely shallow nature of our true entertainment desires? While there's no denying we suffer from both those character defects, Gunda was not the film to reveal it.
Shot in black and white, the cinematography is gorgeous - compositional perfection that gets incredibly intimate with the animals. While many of the usual cinematic tools for emotional manipulation - the human face, music, dramatic edits and camera movement - are stripped away, filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky skillfully plays the long game with the audience's emotions, making you empathise deeply with the protagonist, Gunda the sow, through spending time in her world. When what seemed like hundreds of piglets, but was probably more like 10, climbed all over Gunda's body, fighting each other for a place at one of her teats, I had never felt more seen.
The message of this film isn't subtle. You're tipped off the moment the name of executive producer and Hollywood's leading vegan warrior, Joaquin Phoenix, appears in the opening credits, but it's nevertheless a very effective presentation of that message. It's not a didactic documentary, whipping you across the face with gruesome images of factory farming, but an entirely different approach: an hour and a half of fly-on-the-cow filmmaking that slowly and skilfully shines a light on the sentience of farm animals.
I was a vegetarian for eight years and right about now I'm regretting falling off that wagon.
Gunda is in cinemas now.