Gunda is a patient, unobtrusive, objective documentary, but it’s not dispassionate. Were an alien to descend from the skies, perch themselves before a screen and spend but a brief time digesting its simple, monochromatic accounts of farm life as experienced by the animals, perhaps they’d consider it merely an educational exercise low on information and illumination. But we humans are not aliens. We don’t watch films in a vacuum of context, devoid of personal emotional response. To watch this film as a human being is to be profoundly illuminated and moved. It’s the very furthest thing from dispassionate.

Director Viktor Kossakovsky has been a rigorous purist his entire career, and Gunda is no exception. There’s nothing even remotely extraneous about this film – no conspicuous stylistic quirks, no curious little asides or adjuncts, nothing but what Kossakovsky intends to show us in its simplest, most unadorned format. His portrait of life on the farm isn’t so much from the perspective of the animals as it is a window onto that perspective. The viewer observes as the camera observes, witnessing the innocent joys, the ephemeral pain, the unrelenting wonder and the reliably recurring hunger of these beautiful creatures. Seeing them not as sentient objects within our human world but as companions, as protagonists in their own worlds, these dialogue-free 90-odd minutes become more affective and enlightening than the best David Attenborough wildlife doc.

Gunda is the mother pig, parent to a dozen or so offspring. We check in on them at a few stages in their growth, each time noticeably larger, each time in delightful depth. They share their habitat with a band of chickens – the most adorable of whom is missing a leg and must hop precariously across her natural terrain – and a herd of cows, depicted first as a fearsome stampede of pure, mighty muscle and bone, then as their strange selves dimly chewing on cud, somehow aloof and absurd simultaneously. The presence of the chickens and cows is a blunt but effective reminder of Kossakovsky’s point: every animal life has value and no creature exists to be needlessly subjected to the will of any other creature.

That said, the point is made clearest and longest in Gunda’s primary preoccupation: the family of pigs. Kossakovsky has claimed his film to posit a pro-veganism message and it does so with a total absence of preaching. Ironically, its effectiveness comes from that refusal to directly convince its audience, trusting in the inherent worth of the material and subjects accrued through honestly, compassionately and objectively chronicling the lives of animals. It’s in this compassionate approach, integral to the film, that Gunda eventually develops the interspecies bond between viewer and subject into something devastatingly visceral. For any animal lover – as we all ought to be by the end of this film – this is easily the year’s most overwhelmingly sad film and its most potent portrayal of grief.

It’s only through Kossakovsky’s fundamental remove from these animals, maintaining a position as filmmaker that de-emphasizes the presence of the camera even as it moves to follow the action, that he’s able to educe such intense emotions. There’s an unambiguous trust that no manipulation has occurred – that what we’re witnessing as viewers is nothing less than reality at its most real. What we see here is thus the same in kind as what we don’t see elsewhere, the billions of emotionally intelligent animals worldwide facing similar joys and similar hardships. To see that hardship take its brutal toll on one animal in Gunda is to feel the hardship of a life shattered in one fell swoop and to know the hardship of countless more.

The black and white cinematography captures light, shadow and movement, only minimally editorialized by the filmmakers if at all. The soundtrack is bare – no music, just the diegetic sound of a natural landscape inhabited by creatures far more attuned to it than us humans. Not a word is spoken throughout. Yet Gunda captures such a wealth of lived experience and earnest emotion over its swift hour-and-a-half that it’s almost impossibly rich in content and uncommonly moving by its poignant close. It’s not even irrelevant that such lived experience is not that of our species – in fact, it’s all the more stirring for that fact.

Plain, honest reality put plainly and honestly onto the screen.
93 %
Natural Wonder
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