All life is beautiful: Animals take centre stage in Gunda

‘People think that dolphins or chimpanzees are the smartest animals. But pigs are smarter than dogs.’
Director Viktor Kossakovsky’s new documentary Gunda has been all his life in the making – ever since his beloved pet pig became the family dinner when he was a child

“That’s it,” cries Viktor Kossakovsky. “Unfortunately, in Russian, there is nothing like this. Thank you! I was searching for this particular word.”   The word that has struck a chord with the Russian documentarian is “speciesism”, a term that was once known only to animal liberationists and philosophy students diligent enough to follow specialised debates among ethicists.

Discussions concerning the supposed supremacy of one species over another have, since the late 1960s, centred on such issues as intensive factory farming, blood sports (such as fox hunting and bullfighting), and the increasingly debunked practice of animal experimentation for biomedical research. In his landmark 1975 book Animal Liberation, bioethicist Peter Singer defines speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species”.

The concept, however, dates back at least to the 18th century, when Jeremy Bentham, a committed vegetarian and the father of modern utilitarianism, reasoned that: “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny... A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational... animal than an infant of a day, or a week... The question is not, can they reason? Nor can they talk? But... can they suffer?”  

I want people to just look and understand that each animal has personality and has emotion. They can enjoy life and they can suffer

The sentiments underpinning Bentham’s “Equal Consideration of Interests” were echoed, centuries later, when Joaquin Phoenix stepped up to the podium to accept an Academy Award for his performance in Joker. 

“We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity,” said the best actor winner in a speech that quietly raged against everything from misogyny to dairy.

“Many of us are guilty of an egocentric worldview, and we believe that we’re the centre of the universe. We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

Director, Viktor Kossakovsky
Director, Viktor Kossakovsky

That speech was a turning point for Gunda, an animal-centric project that Kossakovsky has been trying to make for more than two decades. Phoenix, who served as an executive producer on the film, has described it as “a work of profound importance and artistry”. Paul Thomas Anderson, who collaborated with the actor on Hard Eight and The Master, has called Gunda “pure cinema... It’s jaw-dropping images and sound put together with the best ensemble cast and you have something more like a potion than a movie.”

“When Jaoquin Phoenix saw the film, he called me immediately,” recalls Kossakovsky. “Wow, someone finally made the film. A film that shows animals as they are and not as we think about them. You gave a voice to the voiceless.”   Gunda is an immersive documentary concerning the daily life of a pig, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. Set in an idyllic Nordic farmstead, shot in lush monochrome, and soundtracked by buzzing flies and the occasional snuffle, the film chronicles the title character’s journey into motherhood. While many have dubbed what follows a real-world Babe or Charlotte’s Web without the spider, Kossakovsky eschews anthropomorphism in favour of gamboling cattle and guzzling piglets.  

“From the very beginning, I decided I will film very long,” says the director. “I won’t use title cards or any voiceover. I will eliminate any music. I want people to just look and understand that each animal has personality and has emotion. They can enjoy life and they can suffer.”  

Kossakovsky describes his leading lady as the “Meryl Streep of pigs”. He and his crew had compiled a list of more than 120 farms in order to cast for the film. He didn’t need the list. He met Gunda on the very first day of scouting. 

“I say I didn’t choose her,” he says. “She chose me. We came to her farm and there were more than 20 sows there under one roof. We had planned four to six months of scouting. And on the first farm, I opened the door and she came right up and looked at me. It was immediately a kind of friendship. I said to my producer: ‘Look, we’ve found her.’ I was so happy making this film. She gave me so much. Every day, I feel myself becoming a better person. You cannot look at Gunda and say she does not have a soul.”   He laughs. “And now she has been in the Guardian and the New York Times and everywhere.” 

Gunda
Gunda

Her performance certainly impressed Phoenix who has praised her extravagantly for offering “a mesmerising perspective on sentience within animal species, [that is] normally – and perhaps purposely – hidden from our view. Displays of pride and reverence, amusement and bliss at a pig’s inquisitive young; her panic, despair, and utter defeat in the face of cruel trickery, are validations of just how similarly all species react and cope with events in our respective lives.”

Kossakovsky was born in Leningrad in 1981 and began his apprenticeship as a teenage assistant cameraman at the Lendoc, the Leningrad documentary studio. As a film-maker, his features have opened the Venice Film Festival and won major prizes at Edinburgh and Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. His 2018 documentary Aquarela gave a mesmerising account of man’s relationship with ice and water. It was released globally – and to considerable acclaim – by Sony Classics. Gunda has been percolating in his mind since childhood.   

“When I was four years old, I had a little piglet as a friend,” recalls the film-maker. “He was the best part of my childhood, the best memories I had. He was smart and sensitive. People think that dolphins or chimpanzees are the smartest animals. But pigs are smarter than dogs. And we enjoyed making a mess together. Then when he was killed for new year’s dinner, for me, it was as if my relatives had killed my best friend. So as a kid in the Soviet Union, I decided to be a vegetarian. So it was a disaster for my whole family because they didn’t know what to cook for someone who did not eat meat, and who refused to eat fish and chicken. It was many years before I realised that there is Leonardo da Vinci and Tolstoy and other people who think about animals as I do.”

Gunda with her piglet
Gunda with her piglet

Happily, both vegetarianism and veganism have gained considerable currency in the intervening years. In the 21st century, in particular, there has been a surge in the number of vegans; including such high-profile practitioners as Bill Clinton and Mike Tyson. For many, including the 42nd potus, the switch to a plant-based diet is a step towards a lower weight, improved kidney function, lower cholesterol, longer life and other proven health benefits. The Game Changers, a Netflix documentary produced by James Cameron, Jackie Chan, and Pamela Anderson, interviews Lewis Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other sporting and athletic personalities who swear by plant-built muscle. 

Ethical veganism, meanwhile, has become increasingly mainstream thanks, in part, to such hard-hitting documentaries on animal exploitation as the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014), which explores the link between animal agriculture and climate change, Earthlings (2005), a wide-ranging expose of animal abuses, and Blackfish (2013), an investigation into the cruelty of keeping whales and orcas in captivity in parks like SeaWorld.

Scientific research has added weight to the cause. Pain research has led to the rise of ostroveganism, an ethical vegan diet that allows bivalves, such as oysters and mussels on the basis that, unlike most other sea creatures, they do not feel pain.   Lesley Joy Rogers’ seminal 1997 book Minds of Their Own: Thinking and Awareness in Animals, a scholarly study of self-awareness and empathy in the animal kingdom, is part of a growing area of academic endeavour, one that has been furthered popularised by Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour (2006) and Alexandra Horowitz’s best-selling dog psychology books.

Kossakovsky has his own scientific analysis.   

Why man? Why not monkeys? Or dolphins or butterflies? Why are we more important than everybody else?

“I was making Aquarela in parallel with Gunda,” he says. “I was talking to two sets of researchers. Scientists who study animals. Scientists who study water. And when you put those figures together they are catastrophic. There are a billion people who have no access to clean water on the planet. And there are one billion cows who need more than 10 times the water that a human needs. We are cutting down forests to feed the cows. It takes more than 10 times the land to feed a cow than a person, It’s ridiculous.”   

There is some light at the end of the tunnel for animalkind. Veganuary and Meatless Mondays are once-fringe ideas made mainstream. Vegan equivalents for popular meat and dairy products, such as plant-based Denny’s sausages and vegan Galaxy bars, can be found in most supermarkets. Legal bans on animal ownership for those convicted of cruelty against animals are increasingly common. The fight for great ape personhood, granting legal protections to the non-human members of the great ape family, including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, scored a huge victory in 2007 when the parliament of the Balearic Islands passed the world’s first legislation that would effectively grant legal personhood rights to all great apes.  

These are small victories in a larger struggle. Kossakovsky, in common with many ethical vegans, takes a wider and longer view of – that word again – speciesism.    “Why man?” he asks. “Why not monkeys? Or dolphins or butterflies? Why are we more important than everybody else? We were so busy killing each other during the last century that we did not notice that it had come to define us. We invented Kalashnikovs. We invented concentration camps. We invented torture. Why have we learned no lessons? Why are we still killing people? Because we allow ourselves to accept killing.

We are killing one billion pigs every year, we are killing 50 billion chickens every year, we are killing over half a billion cows every year, we are killing over one trillion fish every year. We are killing machines. We know it but we pretend that we don’t. We treat animals like objects, not like someone. When kids are born, we give them toys that look like horses and cows. We want them to love animals. Many families have dogs or rabbits as pets. Because pets are friendly. They love you and help you to better understand your feelings. But people don’t make this connection. They don’t care that all other animals can do the same. Just because an animal does not sleep in your bed, it doesn’t mean they’re not sensitive.” 

Gunda is released in cinemas and on digital download on June 4th