The trailer for Gunda was one of the most interesting that I’ve seen. The black and white pictures of pigs and one-legged chickens had you on tenterhooks to know, what else could possibly be in this film. The answer – for better or worse – is not much else at all.
Gunda is a 90 minute film of pigs, cows, chickens, but mainly pigs. There is no voiceover, no soundtrack, just the normal sounds you hear in nature. The grunts and squeals of animals, the pouring of rain, the incessant buzzing of flies and chirping of birds. Who’d have thought that nature would be so bloody loud?
The film opens with piglets suckling their mother – the eponymous Gunda – for, I swear, 10 minutes. This is not me exaggerating for effect – it felt like it was going on for an hour. Just as you think the pigs are done, they go for another suckle. And this is just the start.
We move onto the aforementioned chicken and cows. We watch them. Nothing in particular happens. We watch them more. We see how the cows stand toe-to-tip, using their tails to waft away flies from each other. We come back to the pig which stares at us, daring the camera to look away. We are told nothing – we must just live through the experience.
Gunda felt to me like an Art project that ended up in a cinema by mistake. I could easily see it (and appreciate it) as a film in a gallery. We look at it, stay a couple of minutes, then move to the next exhibit. We know that we could watch through the full 90 minutes, but what would be the point in that? We know that it’s pretty much the same sort of thing with slight variations.
Tonight’s showing was followed by an interview with director Viktor Kosakovskiy, which didn’t quite work. Kosakovskiy lives in Berlin, but prefers to speak idiomatic English with a distinct accent, which is not always easy to understand. Coupled with microphones which also were prone to failure, it was a struggle to follow.
But we just about got that this was a celebration of nature, and in particular of those animal reserves where you can adopt an animal so that it isn’t slaughtered early. Instead, it can live a full life without the threat of being killed for someone’s Sunday dinner. Kosakovskiy noted that cows would normally expect to live to 30. Factory farming means that they are usually killed at 4 or 5.
This is a righteous cause, which is supported, among others, by vegan celebrity producer Joaquim Phoenix. It is also, unfortunately, a very boring cause. Look, I get it, there are those of us who see endless video footage of animals doing their thing and get a rush of enlightenment about the great interconnectedness of it all. And there are those of us who just sit there waiting for something to happen.
A number of reasons are proffered about why Gunda is something new – the lack of narration means that we approach animals on their own terms, the time spent with animals shows how they are just like us. Except they aren’t. You just can’t have a pint with a pig and discuss the human (or porcine) condition. While of course I’m against unnecessary animal cruelty, I’m not sure that I accept the premise of a film that wants to argue that they’re just like us.
But that’s not the main point. Even if animals deserve equality, I’m just not convinced that watching them leading their normal boring life is a compelling argument for us to practically change the way we treat them. Gunda is, as they say, critically acclaimed, and got rave reviews, so I presume there are reviewers out there who got actual satisfaction from watching the film. I accept that this is possible, but find it difficult to emphasize.
For one film only, I’m resurrecting my category “What was that?”, previously used only for Cats, another animal-based film where “is it any good?” is the wrong question. It is what it is – if you like it, then you’re probably interested in other things than me, but none the worse for that. Summary: if you like long black and white shots of animals doing nothing, this may be just the film for you. If not, maybe not.