In their noble quest for truth in modern life, documentaries are often giving a voice to the voiceless, be it to victims of sexual abuse in Robert Greene’s Procession, young disadvantaged female filmmakers in I Am Belmaya, or sufferers of war such as in the extraordinary For Sama. Of late, such a mission has also been extended out to animals, giving voice to creatures through non-narrative film in an effort to extract a profound and intimate truth.
Alongside Viktor Kossakovsky’s fascinating monochrome fairytale Gunda, tracking the lives of several farm animals including a pig, two cows and a one-legged chicken, director Andrea Arnold is the latest to contribute to such a trend. Following the creation of several feature-length films and the responsibility of the recent HBO drama Big Little Lies, Arnold returns to cinema with one of her most intimate films yet.
Whilst her latest documentary, Cow, follows the plodding everyday life of a large dairy cow in rural England, the story and its methodical nature feel deeply personal, accessing a profound truth about maternity despite the barrier of species. Without narration, dialogue and a stark use of music, Arnold’s film demands empathy in its visceral depiction of life and survival on the border between nature and civilisation.
Witnessing the whole life-cycle of the animal’s brief existence, the film begins with the lumbering cow, Luma, as she gives birth to her child, licks her clean and then is forced to watch her be taken from her side. Wildly mooing as she roams her restricted cell, the camera remains close to the ground, turning her frantic moo’s into agonising shouts as she pleads for the return of her calf. It’s ingenious filmmaking from Arnold, who brings a profound truth to the film by placing the spectator in the very same position as the animal. Without context or reason, they are victims.
Managing to allocate the thoughts of another species, it suddenly becomes simple to extract the truth from the dark eyes of Luma, two pinballs that Arnold constantly fixates on throughout the film. Witnessing her sheer turmoil, we see her pain at being torn from her calf before recognising her acceptance, apathy and confusion at the world around them. When the director points our point of view towards the sky and we witness aeroplanes, hot air balloons and even fireworks on an autumnal night, it’s hard not to relate to the animal’s bewilderment.
Living on the very periphery of modern life, it certainly feels as though the hustle and bustle of the city is a mere stone’s throw away as trains zip past nearby and the unusually dulcet tones of BBC Radio One are heard throughout the barn. Whether it’s Arnold’s intention or not, the film reflects the disconnect between human and animal, civilization and its industrial food source, as we so often turn a deliberate blind eye to the suffering of our steak.
Suggesting thoughts, feelings and consciousness beyond our simple understanding, by placing the audience in the empathetic position of an animal’s right hand side, Cow asks you to identify with such an existence and question the nature of such in the modern world. Whilst Cow may do little but follow a herd of dairy cattle, it is a noble human effort to unlock an ethereal, compassionate understanding of the truth of those we share our planet with.