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The first movie I watched theatrically in 2021, following roughly a year of streaming and semi-deranged DVD hoarding, was Viktor Kossakovsky’s livestock documentary Gunda. Shot in crisp black and white, Gunda wordlessly follows the titular sow and her piglets on a pleasant-looking Norwegian farm. There’s no human dialogue or narration to orient the viewer, no soundtrack to indicate how you’re supposed to feel. Just long, close footage of pigs doing their various pig activities. There’s a vignette or two involving a chicken. 

It blew my mind.

Maybe it was the renewed novelty of watching something, anything, on a large screen again, but the thing that struck me about Gunda is just how goddamn weird pigs are. Nature documentaries, from Disney’s True-Life Adventures series to March of the Penguins, have an aggravating (if well-intentioned) habit of anthropomorphizing their subjects, of showcasing the parallels between animal and human behaviors and emotions. Not Gunda. The beauty of Gunda is that it takes a familiar, domesticated animal like the pig and renders it into something alien. That the pigs occupy what looks like a clean, healthy environment helps the film’s final gut punch of a shot land that much harder. Pigs may not be human, but their screams sure make it sound like they are.

Andrea Arnold’s excellent Cow is also a fly-on-the-wall documentary about livestock, but the dairy cow at the center of it, Luma, isn’t the weird part about it. It’s the alien landscape she inhabits. The key difference between Gunda and Cow is that humans play a more explicit, direct role in Luma’s daily life than they appeared to in Gunda’s. But like Gunda, Cow dispenses with exposition, leaving dairy industry lay folk such as myself to meet the absurdities visited upon Luma with a perhaps shared sense of bewilderment. At one point Luma has her hooves trimmed, to do so requires that she be rigged sideways in a trimming chute, a giant panini press of a contraption, machinery whose visual design would make perfect sense in Star Wars. 

Cow opens with the artificial insemination of a milk cow and subsequent closeup view of a birth involving rope and much tugging. Humans are an endless presence in this animal’s existence. They tag ears, burn horn buds, connect udders to suction pumps. 

That last task, the milking—the whole operation’s raison d’être—is the surrealist element of the film, Luma penned in a little station alongside an indeterminate number of identical stations. Pop music wafts in (Angel Olsen, Billie Eilish, Charlotte Day Wilson, etc.—let it not be said that the workers of Park Farm have uncool taste in music), mildly distorted by the acoustics of the high ceilinged warehouse. Does it calm the herd? Does it register as that much more context-free, incomprehensible stimulus? 

The humans in Cow appear good-natured and kind. They seem to genuinely care about Luma. But Luma’s not a pet; she’s a commodity with a shelf life. Neither film is didactically political, but both are unambiguously about the exploitation of living things, and the limits of humane farming.

Cow (2022)

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPA Rating: Unrated

Streaming: Available to rent

Gunda (2021)

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPA Rating: Unrated

Streaming: Available to rent

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Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....