Gunda: My Porcinus Teacher

Over the years as an animal activist I’ve shown many films of graphic animal cruelty, both in class rooms and out in the streets. Except for the granddaddy of them all, 1981’s The Animals Film, there is very little art about them. Mostly, they’re just blood and guts.

And I’m a big believer in showing blood and guts because if they are left out completely — as in The End of Meat (2017) or Eating Animals (2018) — the films don’t engage the emotions and are forgotten about the next day. Without the suffering and killing there’s no sense of urgency and we are left wondering exactly what the stakes/steaks are. Absent this truth, these films feel hollow no matter how well-intentioned and researched.

Finding a balance between keeping people watching, showing the cruelty, making a lasting impression and inspiring change has always been difficult.

In contrast to the wildly colorful, fast-moving sea creatures and unpredictable underworld of My Octopus Teacher, Viktor Kossakovsky’s black and white, narrator-less, music-less slow-moving Gunda charts a completely different course.

Gunda (German for “female warrior”) is a mother pig raising a dozen piglets on a good-as-it-gets “traditional” farm in Norway which bears no resemblance to how 99% of pigs are raised in industrialized countries. This makes the emotional wallop of the film’s ending all the more impactful.

Gunda and her babies are followed from birth to four months old. To facilitate camera work, the film crew built Gunda an ingenious small barn with a very key small squarish opening where much of the film’s “action” takes place. The pigs can go in and out when they want, roam a field, root in the dirt and take mud baths. There’s no scenes of killing or graphic cruelty. No humans are ever pictured. The film goes at the pace that the animals live their lives with only the ambient noise of the farm: grunts, squeals, snorts, oinks, clucks, buzzing flies, chirping birds, wind rustling over grass, an airplane, a muffled hammer pounding in the distance.

Gunda is generally a very exhausted mother. She nurses, corrects, cleans, corrals, leads, herds with her snout and occasionally tries to make some alone time. Usually, though, she’s rolling her enormous self over so the piglets can feed again. The curious piglets play, fight, bite, feint, tumble, run, chase and climb Gunda like the mountain she is. One of the most memorable scenes is when a downpour begins and several of her offspring take turns coming out of the barn, raise their heads to the sky and drink in the rain drops. Another striking image is Gunda filmed through the small barn door, her face, ears and hair outlined in a white almost neon-like light.

Even more so than the cat’s-eye view of Istanbul in 2016’s Kedi, the pig’s-eye view of Gunda’s world is stunningly intimate and makes us completely forget that there are filmmakers anywhere around capturing the minute sounds, close ups and scenes of piglets on the run. (Kossakovsky, who directed the highly-acclaimed Aquarela, says that most of the time on the farm wasn’t spent filming — only six hours of footage was shot — but hanging out and gaining the trust of the animals.) Not distracted by color, we pay much more attention to the expressions on the animals’ faces. We see them as they are: friendly playful beings more intelligent than dogs.

Also in the film are scenes from a couple animal sanctuaries where raggedy battery-caged hens are released into a field, taking their first-ever tentative steps in a strange new world of grass and soil — the real world that humans have deprived them of their entire lives. A one-legged chicken pecks and hops up on a log, seemingly showing the instant acceptance of life as it is and the desire to live at all costs.

On another farm a large and quasi-liberated herd of cows bounds out of a barn into a field in a slow motion dream-like sequence. Once they stop several of them stand parallel to each other, heads to butts, and switch their tails to keep flies off the faces of their friends. Kossakovsky isn’t condemning the human animals watching Gunda but — with their tagged ears and accusatory looks — the eyes of the cows are.

I’m going to reveal the ending of Gunda because I don’t think it takes away anything from the experience of watching it.

After about 75 minutes of the sights and sounds of this mostly peaceable kingdom there is a shocking jolt when a deafening tractor appears near Gunda’s barn. Initially we assume this tractor is there to plow a field but, no, this tractor — sounding like a helicopter, sounding like war — is hauling a rectangular container that is backed up to the barn door and — unseen to viewers — an unseen human animal is loading up all of Gunda’s screaming offspring to go to the slaughterhouse. In a wild intuitive foreshadowing, just before the tractor appears, Gunda lies in the small doorway where her family has spent most of their lives and looks nothing like she has for the entire film — she looks incredibly sad, like she’s crying. She looks like she knows. Did she hear the familiar horrible sound of the tractor before we did? Who made this movie? Was it someone named Viktor Kossakovsky or a gigantic sow named Gunda and her family? I think they all did.

(Now you see them, now you don’t. You get to know them, you marvel at them, you root for them, then you kill them. And you pretend that you aren’t a monster and that you — for some strange reason — deserve mercy and justice and consideration when you won’t show them any. And the next time you see them they won’t look anything like they do in this film — they’ll be sliced and diced and wrapped in plastic, their gray/green color temporarily covered up by nitrates and nitrites to make them look pink, reddish and “fresh,” heavily salted and perhaps seasoned with growth hormones and antibiotics so you can imagine that you’re eating anything other than a rapidly decaying corpse. Because it’s “natural.”)

The container is raised up and the tractor drives away. The initial zeroing in of the camera on the gigantic tractor wheel makes the connection to the creation of the wheel thousands of years ago and our destructive reign on this planet. (What’s been more destructive to the earth and non-humans than the wheel and its roads?)

Now, for the first time in the movie, Gunda is animated and alarmed, not the lumbering hulk we’ve seen so far, and she runs after the tractor and her screaming, squealing family. The tractor disappears and several times she comes to the barn door and then turns around, as if going back inside would be giving up on finding them so she runs around and continues to look.

Gunda has as much anguish in her eyes as any human ever had. The last time we see her she’s looking for help — from any of us, from all of us. Defeated by the human monster (I repeat myself), she disappears into the darkness of the barn, Kossakovsky lingering on that small squarish doorway, a black hole… of what? Greed? Indifference? Empathy-less humans? Our conditioned ethical blindness? The narrow dark selfish merciless completely unnecessary mind-tunnel that we choose to live in?

We wonder how many times throughout Gunda’s life this has happened. The lives are stolen, the family bonds are broken, her labor is stolen, just as working class labor is stolen — but every human worker has that capability to victimize some weaker species and be their own little capitalist scumbag and tell themselves that oppression and being a slavemaster are “normal” and “right.” (According to Kossakovsky, Gunda’s owner says she won’t be bred again and will live out the rest of her life on the farm.)

My Octopus Teacher shows that fascinating interspecies bonds can be formed with seemingly the strangest creatures if humans have patience and dispense with fear, hate and aggression — if our role models were capybaras that’s all we’d have to do. The artistry of Gunda shows that there are other ways to reach the meat-eating masses that don’t involve showing killing, blood or brutality and yet still pack an emotional and memorable punch.

No one can accuse Gunda of anthropomorphizing. If you as a viewer think there is any anthropomorphizing in Gunda you should have the honesty to admit that — for all intents and porpoises (and octopuses and porcines) — these are people, as are all the rest of the furred, finned and feathered — and then figure out a just, humane and miraculous way to go forward in the world.