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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Gunda (2021)

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Gunda wants to challenge your perception of the animals that most commonly feed us. It doesn't want to be a piece of vegan propaganda that floods your senses with inane cruelty and ugliness that unfortunately exists in mass industrial farming. Instead, it wants to show you their lives in all its uninterrupted splendour through the good, the bad and the ugly. A sow and her newborn piglets, a herd of cows, and a group of newly arrived roosters. There are absolutely no humans shown in Gunda, only these common, seemingly ordinary farm animals. Russian documentarian Viktor Kossakovsky opts to mostly focus on the sow and her piglets, where we are introduced to her in intimate detail. She lays on her side as her litter roots around to receive milk from her. This scene is surprisingly brutal in depicting the desperation that is found in nature; the instinct to survive and grow, with each one of these piglets barely being able to see and understand the world around them as they fight, wrestle and stumble trying to find their mother’s milk. It's a tense and ugly scene that is still undeniably beautiful as Kossakovsky captures extraordinary moments of new life understanding its impulsive need to latch onto life.

Although this isn't set in an industrial farming hellscape one would expect from this type of film with a mission to sway hearts and minds, the level of freedom is still limited to all the subjects in Gunda. There are wide, open areas for each animal to go about and explore, but this illusion of freedom deceives not only the animals, but us as well. New arrivals in the form of chickens and roosters are released from their cages in the woods, but soon find themselves encountering fences, pecking at them in confusion. Cows are ushered and pushed out of a warehouse to graze. Even the mother sow and her babies find themselves just centimeters from electric wiring hidden away, stopping them from progressing just a little further into the wilderness.

Kossakovsky’s decisions in how to capture this environment through sound and audio are absolutely vital, and it’s no wonder it took him so long to get the backing he required to do so. There is no one relaying any kind of information to us, no context in regards to the farm or where we are, no swelling music dictating how we should feel, no movie star narrating, hell, no humans at all. All we have is the sound and images of these animals in this environment. It’s all we need. But the decision to leave out all these superficially appealing aspects like narration, frequent cuts, music etc. is something that may scare its viewers away.

The film is loaded with extremely long shots of ordinary moments of nothingness. Animals are often seen just wandering around, cows batting off flies, piglets sniffing around for food, etc. The lack of urgency in the edit could also scare viewers away due to no relentless barrage of conflict and drama influencing the film's pace. But that’s what makes Gunda feel all the more honest, real and eerily similar to our own lives. The mundane can still be ordinary, extraordinary and tragic depending on how we perceive each moment. It brews genuine emotions inside us as we connect to these subjects on an emotional and spiritual level. Piglets study and try to make sense of the rain with childlike wonder, an extraordinary character reveal of a rooster announces itself to us and the other animals on the farm, cows bat flies off of each other to make the hot days that little bit more bearable, the mother sow looks for a piglet stuck somewhere in the hay. We begin to see ourselves in them as they make sense of their existence and respective situations, no matter how hopeful and hopeless it may seem.

Kossakovsky’s decision in photographing Gunda in black and white is not just a random stylistic choice, but entirely intentional. It allows us to truly focus on these subjects instead of being distracted by the world around them. The black and white imagery takes us away from what we are used to seeing in nature documentaries of bright, rich colours and puts us in a world we feel like we have never been to before. It genuinely feels otherworldly, as if we are visitors arriving in a strange land, observing these creatures in their habitat. This is at its most effective when we are spending time with the roosters, trying to make sense of their surroundings when we are first introduced to them. This strange new world feels just as alien and unknown to them as it does to us. We pay close attention to their feet as they feel the ground around them. We wander around with them as we go deeper into a mysterious forest, as if we are astronauts surveying the land in a sci-fi movie. Kossakovsky’s use of sound here immerses us in their world of confusion: nature and the sounds of farm life begin to contort and change ever so slightly, feeling and sounding manmade, completely unnatural. It’s smart sound design, making us and the roosters feel as though we are in an unnatural state, with our fate being dictated by those who placed us there.

“The eyes are the windows to the soul” couldn’t be truer with Gunda. Kossakovsky puts a huge emphasis on the eyes of every animal he is watching. This allows us to share a sympathetic bond with these animals in every moment that eventually does unfold in their lives. Kossakovsky essentially captures portraits of each animal with tight close-ups, showcasing their unique personalities and essence in still, breathless moments. Kossakovsky draws most of the film’s attention to the mother pig, and it’s easy to understand why. She speaks to us with her eyes, whether she is looking out for her young or when she lays in a pool of mud disconnecting herself from the world around her. The final scene is quite possibly the most profound in Gunda’s ability in forming a transcendent connection between man and beast. Glances and stares are shared between us and the mother pig, we feel every bit of emotion surging through her, making a strong case about how we are not that much different to these animals, how we see ourselves in her. It’s a beautifully devastating moment of clarity, reaching for the deepest corners of our soul as we begin to internalize the experience Gunda puts us through.

Gunda is gorgeous in its ethereal, dream-like quality, but it is also sure to remind us of the ugly inevitable truth that comes with these animal's lives. Kossakovsky refuses to bombard us with facts, hypotheticals, and a clear line in the sand with which side he chooses to stand on. He doesn’t preach his agenda to us, he doesn’t need to. He lets us watch and listen instead, trusting us to take something profound away from all of it and come to a decision on our own. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but Gunda is as cinematic as cinema can get, challenging its viewers with striking visuals and compelling characters that will no doubt spark an important conversation within yourself. See it on the biggest screen possible.

Where you can watch it: Currently playing in theatres (USA), pending theatrical and VOD dates (UK, Australia)

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