Before being transfixed by Gunda, you’ll never have believed how long you’re willing to wait to see a piglet find a teat. The film is a black and white, unnarrated documentation of farm animals, spotlighting them in a way many of us will have never seen or considered.
The camerawork comprises extensive closeups, long observant takes and very slow panning shots that help us feel like invisible spectators. Gunda forces us to relinquish control and simply see. Divided into ‘chapters’, we are introduced to each species one by one – pigs take the starring roles (Gunda is the titular mother), followed by chickens and cows – and we become familiar with their movement, gaining a sense of their group dynamics and behaviours. The film isn’t what you might expect of a typical nature documentary. There are no invented ‘storylines’; no dramatic scores to manipulate our reactions; no whispered voiceovers to anthropomorphise the creatures. Gunda isn’t Disneyfied nature. It’s frank, blunt, and mesmerising.
The instinctive and harsh mothering shown by Gunda the pig is fascinating, as is the resilience and growth of the piglets. The hens, filmed in a different location, appear to be factory farm rescues – bald and deformed – and their amazed discovery of natural, open woodland is both comical and depressing. It’s the impressive physical stature of the cows that is highlighted. Their bulk and muscle is amplified by the monochrome visuals and slightly slowed shots of their charges from the barn into fields.
Of course, throughout, there are ubiquitous visual reminders of human impact (without any actual humans): wire pens, plastic crates, eartags, barn doors pulled open at grazing time. It allows us to consider the evolution of our relationship with these animals and wonder to what extent we can really consider their captivity ‘natural’. This all precedes a brutal finale as the humans’ ultimate and inevitable interference arrives. It’s upsetting and undeniably cruel, truly capturing the violence of what mankind has become numb to and accepting of.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2021