Documentary Releases: Gunda (2020) - Reviewed

Courtesy of NEON
Just a couple of years after his 2018 water documentary epic Aquarela sent tidal waves through the film world as the most dangerous nonfiction movie ever made, Russian documentary filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky redirected his attention to another kind of natural force.  Albeit much smaller than the Tsunamis and icebergs moving about but no less integral to the daily life we live and take for granted, Kossakovsky set his sights on a mother pig named Gunda and her offspring of piglets on a farmland intended for slaughter.  

Kossakovsky then watched the Academy Awards and notably Joaquin Phoenix’s Best Actor win for Joker whose acceptance speech segued into an impassioned speech about animal rights.  Kossakovsky then approached Phoenix with the idea of signing on to the then developing Gunda project for which he served as an executive producer.
Shot in stark black-and-white by Egil H√•skjold Larsen alongside Kossakovsky with intense painstaking care and patience with next to no music or dialogue save for the soft grunting and squealing of pigs, the soft clucking of some chickens and some occasional cow moos all rendered stunningly in Dolby Atmos sound, Gunda like Aquarela before it is ethereal experiential cinema as documentary filmmaking.  

Though Kossakovsky himself is vegan, Gunda is bereft of any agendas or leanings, resisting providing a point of view or narrative, instead letting shots run on as we absorb the sights and sounds to get a better idea of what it feels like to be cattle on a farm.  Simply put, it lets you live the life of these animals for a couple of hours without a guiding hand other than the animal sounds and movements to connect you to what’s happening onscreen.

A great deal of technical innovation in this NEON Releasing pickup was utilized from a cinematographic end, notably constructing a dolly track invisible to the animals so the camera could move around them freely without influencing their behavior.  At times the pigs attacked or chewed on the cameras but eventually the animals grew used to the constant presence of equipment and soon took the cameras in as one of their own.  

The use of the Arri Alexa Mini LF allowed for a variety of stunningly beautiful extreme close-ups of the animals whether it be a pig’s eye or a chicken foot in mid-step, bringing us as close to the efforts of a David Attenborough Planet Earth special with an even greater sense of purity.  Instead of having a voice telling us how to interpret the footage onscreen, Kossakovsky lets the animals and their language do the talking instead.
Fully endorsed by Paul Thomas Anderson at the time of the film’s North American release by NEON, Gunda like Kossakovsky’s previous work has a hypnotic staying power that lasts long after the film has finished despite the meditative and occasionally dreamy nature of the piece.  With this and Aquarela Kossakovsky has proven to be one of the most exciting and wholly original documentary filmmakers just starting to emerge into world cinematic consciousness.  

While not quite as strong as his water documentary, Gunda is no less extraordinary in its ability to take an otherwise mundane subject and allow it to breathe and spread its wings.  Moreover, it makes you think twice without being patronizing about our own connection with what we do or don’t eat, food for thought.  Once again, another great acquisition for NEON and furtherance of Kossakovsky’s reputation as a nonfiction storyteller to watch for!

--Andrew Kotwicki