By Yun-hua Chen.
It is a rare opportunity to have an eye-level communication with pigs, chickens and cows. Victor Kossakovsky has once again demonstrated the unique power of cinematic language to open up a new way of seeing commonplace phenomenon or creatures which have long been taken for granted, and to find beauty and soul of the banal and the usual. Like his previous film Aquarela, a tale about water, he doesn’t need spoken language for that. This time he doesn’t even need colors.
Filmed in stylish black-and-white of chiaroscuro, Gunda rids itself of our usual human-centric perspective and allows animals’ own narratives to flow. Once again giving a voice to those who do not have one, Kossakovsky’s Gunda tells a story about a sow and her piglets, a one-legged chicken and some cows – animals which are bred for the food industry. Without any human dialogues, these animals are looked at and listened to like human beings. Shot with a substantial amount of emphatic close-ups, their subtlest expressions are rendered visible for observation. Their gaze and behavior unveil that they have an existence which is as well-thought as ours and emotions as sophisticated, but they are by no means humanized like cartoon figures.
In close proximity to the newborn piglets of Gunda the sow, we get to see how they started to stand up, walk, explore the surroundings, and fight with siblings for a nice spot to suck. Then they ventured out to explore the field with their mother cautiously. With beautifully and seamlessly designed graphic matching between sequences, piglets grew in size, developed their own characters and eventually faced their destiny imposed by human beings. Here, if the pig family echoes a family melodrama about a single mother with her many children’s tragic fate, the one-legged rooster’s narrative is like A Man Escaped (1956), searching for freedom beyond the fence. Then comes a herd of cows out of gate to graze on the open meadows, all the while waving tails and stepping their feet; their melancholy big round eyes, through long take and extreme close-ups, are full of emotions and stories of their own.
With Alexandr Dudarev’s sound design, animal sounds are harmoniously woven into the picture while toned down drumbeats establish a characteristic rhythm scheme. The camera is remarkably unflinching as we witness the brutality of the nature, especially when Gunda stepped on her struggling piglet who could not disentangle itself from straw. Yet man-made brutality is subtly hinted at instead, through close-ups of wheels of a seemingly gigantic vehicle, noises of its engine and squeals of piglets.
Victor Kossakovsky talked to us during the Berlinale about animals, filmmaking and the messages behind Gunda.
How did you build this movie from the start?
It was easy actually. It was really easy. Pigs grow, you know. First, they were born. Then they became bigger. Then they showed their hearts individually. You see their personalities. And then, finally, they were separated from their mom. So, the framework was kind of made by situations. I did not do anything. It just happened. It was easy to edit. You can only edit this film chronologically. When piglets become big, you cannot edit it together with moments when piglets are small. It’s quite easy. I didn’t film much. I only filmed seven hours of footage and the film is 90 minutes long. It was the easiest film to do, really. I edited it for one week. I filmed chicken for two days, cows for two days, piglets for five days when piglets were born. Then we had a break to let piglets grow and film three more days when the piglets were one-month old. And then we came for five days to film the last stage after another one-month break. That’s all. It’s the easiest film in my life.
The animals felt comfortable with you in front of the camera?
I studied a lot before filming. I read a lot of books. I talked to English, Brazilian, Norwegian and American scientists of animal behavior. I was watching a lot of scientists’ videos about animals in farms. Unfortunately, most of them were oriented towards production of animals, so they studied them mostly to help production. They did not study them to understand animals, but to make animals more productive. So, when I started filming, I knew what I could do and what I could not do. I saw the place where they lived and designed the same house, but with a gap so that my lens could be inside the house and I stayed outside of the house. Cameraman and my team were outside the house, but we put eight microphones inside. And we put lens inside. We were just travelling wherever she moved and wherever she lied down. We were able to film from many possible angles. They are so clever. From the moment they were born, you could see that one of them was aggressive, one of them lazy and one of them afraid and one of them shy. One of them sneaky. From the beginning to the end, you already know who is the aggressive one. We knew who is the cleverest and the most creative one. We knew this from the first day. That’s very interesting. Human babies pee in the same place as they eat. Not the piglets. Piglets go to the corner to pee. They don’t pee in the same place as they eat. From the first moment they were born, they had some rules already and already knew what was possible and what was not possible. If you are there and see what they do, you immediately respect them. They have lived five million years on the planet, and human beings have lived between 200,000 – 300,000 years. They lived much much longer than we. Their system is much more advanced. For example, cows are never late. At the end of the film, you see that they know at 7 o’clock they would get water, they would come at 7 o’clock sharp. People did not know, and even scientists did not know this; when Google map appeared, they noticed that most of the time cows are oriented towards south-north. When they are free, most of the time they are looking to the north. No one knew this until Google map appeared. We know nothing about them in fact. The range of cows’ voice is seven times more than ours, so they can go very low and also go so high. We took this “mooh” and counted at least 300 different “mooh”s. If you record it and listen to it in fast speed, you can see in the diagram that every time it is a different “mooh”. Then we realised that in particular situations, she was saying “mooh” of a particular kind. When we were making the sound, sometimes the sound engineer had to edit my voice from off-screen away, but we could not fill in the gap because it was a different sound that Gunda made for a different occasion, and he wanted to be so authentic. He didn’t want to use the wrong sound at the wrong moment. If Gunda calls piglets, she makes a specific sound.
Do you want to make it a realist film but at the same time having Gunda as a mythical creature?
Of course. I knew that human beings love mythological stories and we love stories in general. My idea of cinema is different. I maintain my position that cinema was born separate from stories. My idea of cinema is that cinema was born in a single shot which gave you something you have never seen before. You might see it, but you didn’t notice it. You probably look in the same direction as I do, but you have never seen what I see with my eyes and camera. Might be that inside all the shots, there is a story, but this is secondary still. As far as I know, we are educated in such a way that we like to listen to stories. Life gave meanings itself already.
When you talked about Aquarela, you said that it’s not a documentary. Do you feel the same about Gunda?
It’s cinema. It’s just cinema. I can do something to make you see pigs in a way that would make you cry although you see pigs somewhere else in life.
You cried when your pig died when you were a child….
Yes, he was my best friend. I was crying when I was filming the last episode of Gunda. When she came to me, she looked at me, I knew that she was talking me, like, what the hell are you doing. I started crying. And then I heard my team, a group of young people, were crying too.
There are seven billion people on the planet. One billion people on this planet have no access to clean water. At the same time, we have 1.5 billion cows. Now, each cow needs 30 times more water than human beings. We have 30 times more water for the cows and we don’t have enough water for those one billion people. In order to feed cows, we need to cut down forest and grow crops. When we cut down the forest, the land becomes dry. This is a disaster. And now, we are killing one billion pigs, half a billion cows and 50 billion chickens every year. We need to have facilities and buildings to kill them, normally three-floor buildings. Then we have to freeze them, transport them, cut and pack them. What we are doing is wrong. You could see that Gunda is suffering.
You said that Gunda was your Meryl Streep, but you also have your Edith Piaf, the one-legged chicken.
Thank you for saying that. I even call her like this. She must think before every step she does. Every step is difficult for her.
How did you make your editing decisions, such as giving your takes the length that they have?
Editing was so easy. I filmed seven hours and can easily show everything. I know people don’t like watching long films, so composed it in a more artistic way and played with this beginning in front of the gate, the end in front of the gate. I am very intuitive. I guess I have this quality. I come to a place and always know immediately where to put the camera. I can kind of predict what would happen. I know if I put my camera here, sooner or later this window would be broken exactly in the middle of my frame. In the beginning I know where to put the camera in order not to miss anything. When I film, I immediately edit. If I see the shot, it helps that I use camera myself. If you have a cameraman, you are not really connected to the shot. If you look at the shot every time yourself, you know immediate if it is going to be in the movie. If you feel this, the next step would be, what can I film next in order to edit together with this. When I film, I already start to edit in my head.
How did you get in touch with Joachim Phoenix for the project and convince him to be your executive producer? Did you show him the film first?
We had the idea to talk to him about four months ago. When my American co-producer Joslyn Barnes watched it, she said, Phoenix would love it, we have to talk to him, he is the kind of guy who could help to get it distributed. I didn’t take this seriously. When he made his speech at Oscar, everyone called me saying, Victor, he is repeating your speech and saying what you are saying every day. Not everyone in my team was vegan or vegetarian in the first place, and during filming and editing, we were talking about it all the time. Then we found a way to ask him to watch it. His reaction was amazing. He said that he wanted to be a part of it and let more people watch it. He said that every person on the planet must watch it and he would make it happen. Now we chat every day and already have some ideas to do together. I would never have millions viewers watching my trailer without him. Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin are so powerful. People respect them.
Were you behind the low-angle shots in the beginning?
My co-DOP Egil Håskjold Larsen did it. I actually chose him for this. I watched the previous movie that he made, 69 minutes of 86 Days (2017), himself as a director and DOP, filming immigrants from Syria to Sweden. It took them 86 days to travel and he was following this Syrian girl’s travel. It was so well done. I only need five minutes to see a movie and know whether it’s a good movie or a bad one. I need two cuts and then I know. There is one secret which only good professionals know, which is called the distance between camera and characters. Normally only few people in the world do not make mistake. If I go too close, it would not be too comfortable. If I go too far, it is not enough. In relationships we already have this concern, can I go closer or not. Same with the camera. When you watch a movie, you are in the position of the camera. If it is too far, you don’t feel it. If it is too close, you feel uncomfortable. Egil knows how to find the right distance. That’s why I invited him to do the static camera. All the static cameras were operated by Egil.
Did you encounter any difficulties in the process of filmmaking?
The only difficulty was financing it. It was almost impossible. I was trying to finance it since 1997. I was in the Berlinale in 1997 with Sreda. When I got a prize, people started asking me what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to do a film about animals. No one paid any attention. For 20 years I was trying to convince people. When the producer Anita Rehoff Larsen agreed to make it, it was still very difficult. She took huge risks in the first place. We started filming without any support. Only after we did the first shooting, we got support from Norwegian Film Institute and Dutsch Film Institute, and then we started to make it bigger.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.