More experience than movie, “Gunda” is a visionary case for veganism in black and white. Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky’s mesmerizing achievement removes humans from the picture to magnify the small moments in the lives of various farm animals, with his eponymous pig at its center. Over the course of 90 hypnotic minutes, his roving camera observes Gunda and her piglets, a handful of chickens, and a smattering of cows simply going about their lives on an unspecified farmland.
Devoid of music or any other obvious artifice, “Gunda” neither aims to document animal consciousness or anthropomorphize it. Instead, Kossakovsky’s fascinating non-narrative experiment burrows into the center of his subject’s nervous system, meeting the creatures on their own terms in a remarkable plea for empathy that only implores carnivores to think twice by implication. (With vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix signed on as an executive producer, it doesn’t need to make its message overt anyway.)
The concept behind the movie bears some similarity to Kossakovsky’s previous effort, the euphoric visual feast “Aquarela,” a feature-length environmentally conscious tribute to water around the world. At the same time, “Gunda” has a greater clarity to its approach, with an absorbing focus on a pace of life alien to the human mind and yet familiar as it settles in. By refusing to break the spell, the movie allows the material to speak for itself.
Gunda’s never named in the movie, which has no credits to name the location or context of the project, but the so-called “story” belongs to her from the opening shot. Minutes tick by as the hulking creature pokes her head out of the white pigsty that defines her world, and as she rests her head, the frame gets busier: One after another, piglets march in and out of the sty, swirling around her resting body as they settle in to feed.
Kossakovsky gets in close for the gnarly details, but despite the heavy shadows that suggest some macabre new take on “Animal Farm,” the sequence takes on a tender quality as the minutes drag on. Soft light illuminates the hairs on the infants’ backs, highlighting their fragility as they oink and frolic while their mother teeters in and out of the frame.
So it goes for the rest of the movie. Despite the impression of a boundary-pushing filmmaking exercise, there are some precedents in play here: Kossakovsky’s fixation on his subject recalls aspects of Thomas Bames’ sprawling infant portrait “Babies” as well as the visceral immersion into nature’s rhythms through sound and image in “Leviathan.” Like that movie, where cameras careened off a boat to follow fish and fowl alike, the camerawork in “Gunda” (credited to Kossakovsky and Egil Håskjold Larsen) always stays on the level of its stars, getting close to them as they roam through dry fields and process their surroundings, with every step and utterance contributing to an intricate soundscape. While Werner Herzog might contemplate these animals’ dreams, Kossakovsky’s aim is to inhabit the mundanity of their daily rituals, normalizing them for a viewership that wouldn’t know where to start.
Unfolding across three loosely defined chapters, “Gunda” transitions from its pig-family at the start to find a smattering of chickens roving through the bushes, including a one-legged bird unbothered by its disability. Then it’s the cows’ turn to take charge, as they moo and drift about with some mixture of contentment and malaise. And that’s all there is to it — until the closing minutes, a staggering turn of events that redefine everything building up to them.
The charcoal imagery is so entrancing from each shot to the next that it can be easy to lose track of the bigger picture, and for much of the running time, “Gunda” comes up short of fusing its vignettes together. The ending, however, provides a macabre reality check that brings us back to reality to contemplate the ecosystem in which these beings must live. As Kossakovsky’s camera keeps running, the finale enacts a unique kind of tragedy entirely delivered through the expressive actions of one devastated pig. No matter how people choose to process “Gunda,” the filmmaker has captured an undeniable emotional process never seen in quite such terms before.
“Gunda” may be a meditational slow-burn, but as it unfurls its immersive audiovisual tapestry it hovers between non-fiction observation and lyrical insight, and to that end feels like an advancement of the nature documentary form. At the same time, there is an air of activist intent lurking just outside the parameters of each scene, as it builds an argument against animal cruelty that transcends the boundaries of shrill polemics. If it doesn’t convince meat-eaters to hold the bacon with their eggs — or order eggs in the first place — it might at least compel them to taste some of the pain.
“Gunda” premiered in the Encounters section at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.