Review: ‘Cow’ (2022), starring Luma

May 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Luma in “Cow” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Cow” (2022)

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.

Luma in “Cow” (Photo by Kate Kirkwood/IFC Films)

“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.

Review: ‘Gunda,’ a documentary about farm life from the perspectives of animals

April 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gunda and one of her piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Gunda”

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky

Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.

Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.

Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.

Two of Gunda’s piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.

A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.

In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.

Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.

Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.

“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”

It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.

In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.

“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.

If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.

“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.

As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.

Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.

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