May 1, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the documentary film “Cow” features a cast of white people who are farm employees (and secondary characters) in this non-fiction film about a cow named Luma, who lives on a farm.
Culture Clash: The ups and downs of Luma’s life are documented, as she gives birth to two female calves that are taken away from her soon after she gives birth to them.
Culture Audience: “Cow” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing what life is like for a cow on a farm, no matter how uncomfortable it might be to watch.
“Cow” is not always an easy documentary to watch, because it shows the often-harsh realities of being a cow on a farm. The starkness of this reality is fascinating because it can be heartwarming in some ways and disturbing in other ways. Directed in an unfussy style by Andrea Arnold, “Cow” was filmed at a place in England called Park Farm, and the movie focuses on a black-and-white cow named Luma. The documentary does not have an obvious agenda for people to become vegans or vegetarians. Instead, the movie’s intent is to reveal what a typical cow goes through on a farm, and for viewers think about it when it comes to choices in the food that we eat.
“Cow,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, might get some comparisons to “Gunda,” another cinéma vérité-styled documentary about farm animals in Europe. “Gunda” (which was filmed in Norway) focused on a pig named Gunda, along with her piglets and some of the farm’s cows and chickens. The ending of “Cow” is a lot more impactful than the ending of “Gunda.”
Realistically, the consumption of meat is big business that won’t be going away anytime soon. “Cow” also doesn’t try to present Luma in a cutesy way to make her look as human as possible. When the camera shows Luma bleating when she has a newborn calf taken away from her soon after giving birth the calf, viewers can certainly think that she’s crying out in distress. There are also moments when Luma’s eyes can be interpreted as showing emotions that humans have, such as fear, sadness, joy or contentment.
“Cow” does not pass judgment on what Luma might or might not be thinking. It’s a true cinéma vérité documentary that chronicles what happens in an observational style, without adding any narration, interviews or other commentary. The only dialogue heard in the film is background talk from the farm employees, who are not identified by name in the movie. The farm employees shown in the documentary are a mixture of middle-aged men, young men and young women.
It’s during one of these snippets of conversation toward the end of the film that viewers find out that Luma is a not a young cow. One of the farm employees can be heard saying that Luma is getting old, and that the older Luma has gotten, the more protective she’s been of her children. Nothing else about Luma’s background, including her age, is revealed in the movie. Based on the farm routine, these children are taken away from her almost as soon as she gives birth to them. The farm employees feed the calves with bottles containing Luma’s milk until the calves are old enough to be weaned away from the milk.
Luma is shown given birth twice in the movie. The birthing is done with the assistance of farm employees. Both of her calves are female. The first one is mostly white. The other is nearly all black. Luma barely has time to bond with them before the calves are taken away to a separate fenced-in area where Luma cannot see them. Sensitive viewers should be warned that there are scenes where Luma appears to be in distress because she’s calling out for her children. It’s all open to interpretation, but that’s what it looks like.
“Cow” also has footage of the mundane routine of Luma and other cows being milked in a dark, warehouse-styled part of the farm, where milking tubes are attached to the cows’ udders, as the cows stand in cramped stalls. It’s literally a dirty job, because this milking facility has floors usually covered with mud. None of this footage should be surprising to people who know that most of the milk consumed by humans is cow milk.
Sometimes when they work, the farm employees also like to listen to pop music, which can be heard in the background. Songs in the documentary include Billie Eilish’s “Lovely,” Soak’s “Everybody Lives You,” Mabel’s “Mad Love” and the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” Some of the pop music that’s upbeat is in marked contrast to the dismal scenes of cows and steers being penned up in dark and dirty rooms and/or they are confined in areas where they barely have space to walk around. The cows and steers on this farm aren’t treated like this all the time, but there’s enough shown where it’s obvious they spend many hours of each day in these living conditions.
Luma shows flashes of her personality in how she greets some of the other cows. Her social and friendly nature is most evident in the happiest parts of the movie, when the cows are allowed to roam free in a field, under the supervision of the farm employees. Many of cows, including Luma, gleefully run and frolic in the field. There are also scenes of them lounging in the fields, much like how people lounge on a beach. Luma occasionally stops to nudge and rub against her fellow cattle and let out the occasional “moo,” as if she’s saying hello to them.
One of the funniest parts of the movie is a “courtship” scene where a big black steer is put in a fenced-in area at night to be alone with Luma. The two of them are alone because the farm employees want the steer to impregnant Luma. It just so happens that fireworks are going off in the sky at that time.
The steer approaches Luma by gently licking her on her back (you can call it “cattle foreplay”) and then mounting her, as the fireworks crackle in the distant sky. It’s unclear if that encounter is the one that led to Luma getting pregnant. But by the time the movie shows her giving birth to the second calf, it’s implied that the black steer is the father.
People watching “Cow” will have varying degrees of emotions, depending on how viewers might feel about eating meat and how people feel about farms where most animals are raised for the sole purpose of being killed for their meat. Fortunately, the documentary does not have any scenes of animals being beaten or mass slayings of animals. And the farm employees, especially the women, talk in friendly tones to Luma and the other cattle when they have to herd them or get the animals to do certain things.
However, the cramped and dirty conditions in which these animals live for most of their existence will upset some viewers who don’t want to see images of this depressing reality. The ending of “Cow” is intended to be a massive jolt to viewers. It serves as an uncomfortable reminder that livestock animals on farms are treated as business products, not pets.
IFC Films released “Cow” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 8, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on January 14, 2022.