Monday 7 June 2021

Hog wild: "Gunda"

The Leningrad-born Viktor Kossakovsky has set up shop at the conceptual end of the documentary spectrum: I retain fond memories of his 2011 film 
¡Vivan las Antípodas!, which used montage to drill through the centre of the Earth and link stunning footage sourced from diametrically opposed points on the planet's surface. Where Kossakovsky may have needed a sliderule for that, his latest Gunda proves a simpler - and actually far less stimulating - exercise. What we get here are 90-odd minutes spent in the apparent vicinity of a big old ladypig (the Gunda of the title), lustrously photographed in black-and-white as she and her fellow animals go about their daily business on sundappled farmland. In footage played out with no contextualising Attenborghian voiceover, and to a soundtrack chiefly composed of oinks and grunts, this hefty unit eats, sleeps, is suckled on by her adorable piglets (each one a potential Babe in the making), shelters from the rain, and goes for a little potter around the pigpen. As Kossakovsky has been obliged to make clear in promotional interviews, the aim in presenting this footage more or less unmediated was apparently to bring the audience (by which he means the metropolitan arthouse audience) closer to nature, ideally to the extent they might forsake that bacon bap on a Sunday morning. (Full disclosure: this review is penned by a carnivore who doesn't much care for pork, has never eaten bacon, and is starting to find even beef a bit of a chore outside of its unimprovable hamburger delivery system.) Gunda has picked up an illustrious patron in noted vegan Joaquin Phoenix (now an executive producer, giving rise to one of those "Joaquin Phoenix Presents" credits on some publicity material), and it winds towards a punchline that's as bleak as Watership Down. Mostly what it shows us is a life of leisure, lived out on a spacious plain, away from the predations of homo sapiens.

That's an issue with the film, which soon realises a full 90 minutes of snout-down-tail-up snuffling wouldn't in itself sustain a theatrically releasable feature. Kossakovsky's solution has been to cut away from his top-billed star to cast an eye over the neighbouring livestock - chickens, those piglets, a passing herd of cows. Again, all this is observed with the utmost care and patience - you quickly realise the camera's moving that slow so as to avoid scaring these beasts off - but it's also nothing I couldn't equally see at the working farm at the bottom of my road: the monochrome and Dolby Digital don't add anything to the experience beyond a veneer of Guinness-ad artifice. Why, then, have people gone wild for it so? Well, at a time when Mother Nature has been doing her level best to wipe us out, it presents as a broadly soothing watch: for the most part, it resembles one of those placid VHS tapes of fishtanks distributed in the 1990s to lower stress levels. It might serve as a My First Documentary for kids (those piglets are very cute); and it might wind up as a pig critic's Film of the Year, because they (and only they) will be certain about what you and I can only assume from these animals' interactions. This is the exact same problem I ran up against with March's similarly admired immerso-doc Stray: in and of themselves, animals - being loose ragbags of instincts and impulses, guided by an inner logic you and I can never fully access - aren't anywhere near as expressive or compelling as human subjects. They don't have any concept of drama, so it's not right that a film should expect them to shape themselves into dramatic propositions. (Babe had to rely on man-made animatronics to get the effects it did.) Instead, Kossakovsky is caught cheating, having to cut like Kuleshov to suggest relationships between these critters. I'd love to tell you Gunda holds deep and profound truths on the bonds connecting animals, the land and those who live off it, but that background note of phoniness gets only amplified by a closing credit that indicates the film was shot in Norway, Spain and the UK: these animals weren't even in the same place at the time of shooting. This reality is as constructed as Love Island, only with far less squealing and rolling around in filth.

Gunda is now playing in selected cinemas.

1 comment:

  1. You don't mention the plot foreshadowing of Mummy Pig accidentally standing on Peppa and apparently killing the mite, presumably to prepare us for the harrowing ending (which is filmed all in one shot, so Mummy's distress is genuine).

    I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from this, other than we should be more aware of the consequences of farming, though it seems to be free range we're seeing here. Shooting
    factory farming would make for an even less enjoyable experience.