The emotional life of not only this particular pig and her lot but also a roving cast of others, including cattle and an especially memorable one-legged chicken — is what Gunda is actually about. The movie is a film-length argument against our usual, overly personified, cutesy depictions of animals. It is also, not incidentally, a plea to stop eating them.
Kossakovsky, who hails from Russia, and who’s been trying to make this film for many years, is attempting something difficult with this film. He is trying to keep us — all of us — honest. And through a variety of pointed strategies, many of which resemble staid minimalism despite being the product of careful artifice, he’s asking the same of film as a medium. Film: with its processes of photographic emulsion and, accordingly, its use of gelatin — animal collagen, culled from the hides of animals quite like those we see in Gunda. Film: which, in the case of a movie about stock such as these, must in essence destroy what it depicts.
This, for Kossakovsky, is no arbitrary fact. Nor is it arbitrary that the situations we think we’re seeing here are not all what they seem. Gunda is Kossakovsky’s attempt to achieve beauty and expansiveness at minimal cost to both the world it depicts and the world at large. It’s comprised of footage shot over the course of multiple months, on farms and sanctuaries in Gunda’s Norway, but also Spain and the United Kingdom.
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The film seems, at first glance, to be interested in the kind of clear-eyed, intimate, natural beauty that usually demands a great deal of overshooting and environmentally reckless waste. In fact, Kossakovsky has assembled what’s here from only six hours of footage, total — a number that doesn’t reflect the amount of time he must have spent watching and familiarizing himself with his subjects and becoming a seamless part of their world, to the extent that that’s possible. (In the purest sense, it isn’t.) “I should not film if I don’t need it,” Kossakovsky’s has said. “I shouldn’t waste it and I only can press the button when I really, really need this shot.”