As a four-year-old boy, filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky fell in love with a piglet when he spent some time in a remote Russian village. “He became my closest friend and was killed by Christmastime,” Kossakovsky told me at the Berlinale after-party for his nonfiction film “Gunda,” which debuted Sunday in the “Encounters” section. “I became probably the first vegetarian in the Soviet Union. I always wanted to make a movie about pigs.”
Finally financed after decades of no interest, the movie is fascinating and immersive, and critics are raving, even if it took IndieWire’s Eric Kohn three viewings to figure out what he thought of it. “Gunda” couldn’t be more unlike the entertaining 2019 doc “The Biggest Little Farm,” with its colorful anthropomorphic animal characters and voiceover narration and perky, manipulative soundtrack.
“Gunda” is a documentary with no dialogue that follows around a bunch of farm animals in natural light, with long takes, and no music score. But while market expectations for this black-and-white follow-up to Kossakovsky’s dangerous water epic “Aquarela” were low, his producers were all smiles Sunday. Reviews are strong. And the movie is popping, partly because it’s not like anything else you’ve ever seen, but it also carries a powerful political message: humans should not eat animals.
Kossakovsky eschews emotional manipulation. He wants to earn audience empathy for his animals. He picked out his lead character, sow Gunda, on sight on the first visit to a farm in Norway. “It was easy to film,” he said. “It looks sophisticated. We only filmed with a 1 to 4 ratio for a 90 minute film, like back to old cinema. We found Gunda in the first minute of research. It was open the door, we see Gunda. ‘We have Meryl Streep. This is the one, she is so powerful in her face. We found it.'”
In order to intimately film his ingénue, the director built a round barn with places to set the Arri mini-cameras so they could see inside 360 degrees, and also set up exterior tracking shots. He visited Gunda just after she gave birth to about a dozen little suckling pigs squirming to attach to her engorged nipples. The filmmakers returned three more times over the next three months as the soft white piglets matured and followed their mother around the yard.
While the camera setups were fairly straightforward — this shoot was a cinch compared to watery “Aquarela” — the sound was as fake as any Hollywood shoot, as foley artists and other sound magic recreated what the recordists caught on location, but cleaner and more distinctly, from buzzing and grunting and sucking to birds and trees rustling in the wind. That soundtrack also pulls the viewer closer to nature. “I wanted to eliminate voiceover, any slaughtering, any blood,” Kossakovsky said, “because a lot of films are made about this, and people are still not getting it. Now we will just look at them and look how they are and maybe people will get it. I decided to eliminate music. I can make emotional film and people will cry, without manipulating them.”
Kossakovsky also filmed cows grazing in the fields with a SteadiCam as well as following a bunch of chickens who were set free from their coop for the first time in their short lives, tentatively setting their feet outside for the first time, gingerly stepping on grass and slowly gaining courage to explore the fields and woods nearby. “People don’t want to watch chickens, pigs and cows,” said Kossakovsky. “They just block. That’s why I said, ‘No no, I’ll do what you don’t want to see!'”
But Gunda is his star, and sure enough, by the end of the movie you do care for her, as she emotes straight into the camera–a sentient being indeed, as well as a natural actress in full close-up. “We became part of the family,” he said. “I knew it would happen.”
During post-production in Poland and sound work in Russia, 60% of the crew who worked on the film phoned their director and said, “I can’t eat meat anymore.” After Joaquin Phoenix made his speech at the Oscars, people started calling Kossakovsky. “He’s saying what you say every day,” they told him. “You must show this film to him.”
Co-producer Joslyn Barnes got the film to Phoenix, who happily joined the project as executive producer. “His reaction was amazing,” said Kossakovsky. “He’s powerful. He’s beautiful. I hope now with his help the film will be finally in public and people will watch it.”