Gunda a stark, haunting look at farm life

Gunda G, 93 minutes, 4 stars

Not for kids: Gunda is no Babe. Picture: Supplied

Not for kids: Gunda is no Babe. Picture: Supplied

Gunda might be rated G and set on a farm with pigs and cattle and chickens, but this is not a kids' movie. Don't go in thinking it's going to be Babe or Charlotte's Web, charming, whimsical family tales of pigs being spared their usual farm fate because of special talents (their own or a friend's). It's deceptively quiet - there are a couple of moments of heightened animal sound, all the more effective because of the prevailing calm - with an understated but potent anti-meat message.

Director, co-writer, co-editor and co-cinematographer Viktor Kossakovsky's film is in black and white, with no dialogue or narration or text or music and no humans on screen (though there's plenty of evidence - barns, fences, cages - of their nearby presence and control).This is an observational documentary, shot in patient long takes, about the cycle of life for pigs on a farm, with a couple of digressions along the way involving chickens (one of which has adapted to life with one leg) and cattle. Watching it alone in a Dendy cinema was an ideal way to see it.

In one early scene, Gunda's piglets, about a dozen of them, are feeding in the barn, battling for their mother's teats, and there's a shocking moment when we discover the consequences of being "the runt of the litter".

The film opens with the sow Gunda giving birth on a farm in Norway. We see her from the front, lying in a barn doorway, and over several minutes piglets slowly emerge from her body and come into the light.

For those raised on farms seeing a litter born is probably commonplace, but the scene, observed in one unbroken take in black and white, has a stark beauty.

We see the young pigs growing up and interacting with each other and their mother, who keeps a watchful eye over them, nudging stragglers back towards their siblings and allowing them to feed with varying degrees of patience.

While the film seems intended to feel like an observational documentary, it's very carefully constructed. The soundtrack - filled with bird, insect and animal noises, wind, and even, at one point, a cuckoo clock - has been painstakingly assembled rather than being caught on the fly.

Photographing the film in black and white rather than colour gives the film a quality reminiscent of early David Lynch films and old newsreels that makes it feel somewhere between a documentary and a dream.

The director has said, "When we took out the colour, we immediately saw personality. You immediately pay attention to their eyes. Eyes become the most important part of the body and the most important part of the frame."

There's a risk of anthropomorphism here, but it's not hard to see what he means. The cows in a field are sometimes shown looking at the camera - are they bored? curious? judgmental? They seem to have a genuine, quiet camaraderie, especially when we see them standing next to each other, head to tail, flicking flies away from each other's noses.

In one early scene, Gunda's piglets, about a dozen of them, are feeding in the barn, battling for their mother's teats, and there's a shocking moment when we discover the consequences of being "the runt of the litter".

It makes the conclusion of the film slightly easier to take, but only slightly.

Gunda obviously took a lot of time and patience and dedication. I wouldn't want all documentaries to be like this, but the style works here.

The film might encourage some people to become vegans or at least vegetarians.

I won't be one, but at least it has made me think about the origins of some of my food.

This story A stark, haunting look at farm life first appeared on The Canberra Times.