Star of the sty

Christopher Silvester on a documentary with a solely animalistic cast

On Cinema

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

There is no Best Actress Oscar for a female animal, otherwise I know which candidate I would have voted for this year. She is a sow called Gunda, she lives on a Norwegian farm, and she is the star of the dialogue-free feature documentary that bears her name (in UK cinemas from 11 June), directed by the Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky. Of course, there might have been a face-off with another female animal star, the subject of the Netflix release My Octopus Teacher, which actually did win the Oscar for Best Documentary, but Gunda could at least have grunted her acceptance speech.

I first came across the work of Victor Kossakovsky several years ago when my cinephile friend Mark Le Fanu told me about a remarkable documentary, Tisme!, which was entirely shot from the window of the director’s apartment in St. Petersburg across several months in 2002, the year before the Russian city’s three hundredth anniversary. He took out a loan on the apartment and just sat and watched — not because he was actually confined, as James Stewart’s character was by a leg in a plaster cast in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but because he didn’t want to depend on selling a project to a producer.

It is sometimes called Russia from My Window, but its Russian title literally translates as Hush! — the utterance of an old lady exasperated by noisy roadworks. Inasmuch as Tisme! has a story — because Kossakovsky has said he doesn’t believe in storytelling, only observation — it follows what happens to a particular pothole, the frequent and futile repair of which demonstrates the disadvantage of living in a society still rooted in its Communist past, with poor planning and overmanned crews of incompetent public service workers.

“Why do we have to go to war every ten years to get even more land, when we aren’t even capable of repairing a water main?” Kossakovsky has asked. “That’s why I decided that in this film I would only use what I had at hand. Use what you have! That’s what it’s all about.”

It is a lesson in the serendipity of true documentary, as Kossakovsky’s eye is drawn to neighbours and all sorts of passers-by who are unaware of being watched. The resultant 80 minutes of poetic and low-key observation became a film festival favourite. His bank loan was repaid.

In effect his team built a studio set for his star, an almost exact recreation of her sty but with dolly tracks all around it

Born in 1961, Kossakovsky trained at the Moscow film school and worked on various documentaries as assistant cameraman, assistant director and editor before directing his first film, Losev (1990) about an elderly philosopher. There followed Belovy (1992), about a twice-widowed woman who lives in the Russian countryside with her wastrel brother, which has the pictorial flavour of early Tarkovsky.

Kossakovsky uses a different style for every film he makes. The star of his 2018 documentary Aquarela was H2O in its myriad forms and moods: Kossakovsky used immersive Dolby Atmos surround sound and shot it at 96 frames per second.

Most films are shot at 24fps, and in the past cameras had magazines with enough film for about ten minutes’ shooting. But with digital cameras and no constraint on the amount of film, you can shoot many more frames, which means that the camera can register flickers of emotion.

In a film that seeks to show us that Gunda is a sentient being and not just a farm product, we watch her emote. Kossakovsky believes that 24fps is “over and done with” and that other filmmakers ought to follow his lead.

Gunda is presented in black and white because the opening footage of Gunda giving birth to piglets made the pink creatures appear like cute objects instead of individual personalities.

In order to achieve the poetic realism he wanted, Kossakovsky had to cheat. In effect his team built a studio set for his star, an almost exact recreation of her sty but with dolly tracks all around it.

Lighting this sty set adequately presented some problems, so they used a stationary disco ball and the shafts of light emanating from it resemble those that come through the holes in the roof of Gunda’s actual sty at home. And Kossakovsky’s choice of cameraman was Egil Håskjold Larson, Gunda’s fellow Norwegian, who is well known as a Steadicam operator.

Gunda is a lucky pig in the sense that she and her piglets have access to open ground for rootling instead of being caged — until the day that her little piggies go to market. She is not the only member of the cast. There are her piglets, of course, and a couple of resourceful cows. Indeed, there is even a hop-on part for a one-legged rooster (Best Supported Actor?).

Championed for its moral message about animal cruelty by Joaquin Phoenix, who came on board as executive producer, Gunda has also been praised by director Paul Thomas Anderson as “pure cinema” and “a film to take a bath in”.

As for Gunda, she is undoubtedly a star. “We met Gunda on the very first day of our research,” Kossokovsky has told an interviewer. “I opened the door to the pigsty, and Gunda came towards me. She was cinematic — powerful. Her look was strong. So I told my producer Anita Rehoff Larsen, ‘We’ve found our Meryl Streep!’”

Unlike Streep, Gunda is unlikely to become the subject of multiple repeat Oscar nominations, so make sure you get to see her movie.

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