Gunda is a moving and visually stunning cinematic experience. Viktor Kossakovsky’s film observes the daily life of a mother sow (the eponymous Gunda), her piglets, two ingenious cows and a scene-stealing, one-legged chicken. Shot in black and white (with wonderful use of light and shadow) and featuring an incredibly immersive “natural” soundscape, this is one of the most powerful and impressive documentaries of the year.
I use the term “experience” deliberately as Gunda does not follow the traditional template of many non fiction films. There is no narration and no on screen text. There are no talking heads. There is only Kossakovsky’s camera and the animals who wander in and out of the frame.
The piglets are, of course, adorable and in no time we are invested in their survival. They seem impossibly small and vulnerable next to their mother. Gunda’s one legged chicken and collection of cows are, perhaps, a harder sell.
However, there is magic in Kossakovsky’s lens. By keeping his camera still and focused on these animals (often in startling close up) they transform in front of our eyes to become something far more than mere livestock - we begin to see them as individuals.
This technique is a stroke of genius. Kossakovsky’s wants us to consider these animals as conscious creatures and think about their treatment. While watching his film, Kossakovsky wants us to confront our relationship with the animals on our food chain. How can we justify our concern for Gunda and her piglets with our acceptance of global meat consumption?
Kossakovsky’s approach is as bold and it is effective. It is also something of a risk. It takes incredible confidence and restraint to train your camera on a pig, a cow or a chicken and leave it there for extended periods of time - particularly in today’s content heavy, attention-lite world.
Thankfully, the risk has more than paid off.
From its very opening seconds, Gunda draws you in and holds your attention with its trilogy of beautiful and emotionally powerful stories. There is drama and there is comedy. There is joy and there is heartbreak. Above all there is a deep sense of connection - there is, the documentary argues, far more that unites us with these animals and their experiences than it is, perhaps, comfortable for us to acknowledge.
Gunda does feel manipulative at times - its position all too clear. However, this is in no way a criticism of Kossakovsky’s film. This is a documentary that owns its agenda. Kossakovsky wants us to examine our responsibilities and our moral relationship with animals. Gunda encourages us to face these issues and to think about animal consciousness and the inherent value of life.