Visual cornucopia ‘Gunda’ is labor of love for vegan activism

Photo of Gunda
Hailstone Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

There’s an attraction to farm life in our culture. It’s immortalized in Americana, the subject of literature and cinema, life goals and daydreams. But the farm is also a flashpoint of allegory — think “Charlotte’s Web” or “Animal Farm.” “Gunda” is the latest of both, but it’s unlike the others. Director Victor Kossavosky leverages the moral weight of documentaries such as “Food, Inc.” while elaborating on the artistic vision of his earlier “Aquarela,” producing something beyond both that saddles viewers with a head-ringing burden.

“Gunda” lands among the best visual cases for veganism. There’s no dialogue or music here, not even color. Kossakovsky, co-credited for writing, cinematography and editing, takes an “au naturale” view of a few free-range farm animals: a sow (Gunda, not credited but implied) and her newborn piglets, a one-legged chicken and a herd of cows. Turning the ordinary lives of farm animals into a searing argument, this experimental, entirely observational documentary is preoccupied with abuse and enamor, consumption and empathy. 

None of that is made painfully in-your-face. “Gunda” is a quintessentially slow documentary that takes its time to build up to a heartrending conclusion. Before it reaches that finale — hinted at by the unwieldy noises of humans and their machinery but presented in a shattering style that denies foreshadowing — Kossakovsky levels us and the camera with the animals. 

The chickens take on expression, the cows stare accusingly and the lines of Gunda’s face are etched into viewers’ minds. From the very start, however, Kossakovsky avoids head-on views of the animals’ faces. More often than not, we see the faces at an angle — such as in the first scene, where there is an enchanting shot of Gunda and her offspring pouring out of a cut-out in the barn wall, Gunda’s face tilted away.

All that is presented with nuanced camerawork that subtly guides our attention and understanding. Where “The Truffle Hunters” sought delectability, “Gunda” puts its finger on exquisite and ultra-detailed cinematography that serves its subjects. Lighting is more than functional in “Gunda,” becoming cinematographers Kossakovsky and Egil Håskjold Larsen’s vibrant if colorless highlighter in the absence of traditional storytelling tools. Some shots are so mesmerizing, their symmetry and detail captivating, you may want to frame them. Finding one that sums up the totality of “Gunda” is next to impossible. The sow, chicken and cows never appear together in the first place, and even if they did, this is a film of associations.

Everything about “Gunda” is in the details, sound not spared. While the camera peruses the fuzz on the piglets’ backs, the sound team gets busy turning the mundane into the extraordinary. The squeals from the newborns are vulnerable, and the buzzing of flies is sometimes kicked to an extreme that hovers just below distortion. As the camera fills the frame with the newborns suckling at Gunda, nature’s ambiance and the pigs’ squeals threaten to overwhelm the viewer. In terms of Oscar snubs, “Gunda” tops the list for Best Sound.

Kossakovsky isn’t fazed by the enormity of the task at hand, however. Rarely does a movie bring such a distinctly different view of the world into relief. “Gunda” treats us to lives impossible to understand without abstraction, only asking us to look at these living, thinking creatures, which are almost exclusively seen elsewhere through belittlement. The film is so earnest and endearing that the use of “pig” as an insult seems ridiculous and rude to pigs everywhere.

In the end, when Gunda finally decides to stare us down directly, she seems to be asking us how we could take her children away. As Gunda, suddenly childless, retreats back into the barn that was once bursting with life, Kossakovsky drives home his argument for veganism. For those unable to take that step, “Gunda” crushingly reveals the pain a simple choice causes.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].