‘Gunda’ Director Viktor Kossakovsky Found Inspiration in Porcine Life to Promote Animal Preservation

The most evocative cinematic biography of the season does not belong to a major historical figure, but to a pig raising her offspring in a deceptively serene landscape. “Gunda” is a documentary that features no music or narration. It does not wear any upfront political messages on its sleeve. Everything it has to say is through the art of using the lens as both artistic brush and observer, framing natural life itself. With a subtle power, the documentary brings home that these are also lives we consume as food, as products. Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky is more poet than documentarian, and found inspiration from a great author to begin the journey of this project. “Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel ‘The Idiot’ has a very important line. It says, ‘I do not understand how can you go out and see a tree and be unhappy.’ Just by seeing it you must be happy because it’s a miracle. This is the way to see the world,” Kossakovsky told Entertainment Voice. “Every creature around us has a meaning and right to be here. They have purpose.” 

Shot in black and white, “Gunda” finds moments in the life of these pigs and other farm animals so intimate and harmonious. Not a single human appears in the documentary, which gives it an almost otherworldly texture. For Kossakovsky, it’s a testament to a balance we tend to disrupt. His previous documentary, “Aquarela,” was a meditative but grandiose exploration of the world’s great frozen zones and vast seas, which we are also disrupting with climate change. “We as humans come into this natural world and say ‘no, no, we are the most powerful. We will cut down the forests. We will incriminate these animals and make shoes from their skins,’” he said. “So we come into the world of these animals as a destructive force. So I thought about all that when reading Dostoevsky. Who knows, maybe other people read the same book and think something else or focus on different lines. But that line about the tree changed my life and helped me see the world differently.”

Kossakovsky condenses a quietly wondrous meditation into 1 hour and 33 minutes that opens with Gunda framed resting over hay. Gunda’s piglets soon appear, like a family enjoying a lazy afternoon. What follows is a free flow journey through what existence is like for Gunda and her offspring. In dreamlike, black and white shots, the piglets sleep like a pack, feel the sunlight on their faces, or follow Gunda on forays into vast fields. Or they all bunch up to suckle milk. Outside chickens traverse clearings as if they were dinosaurs and cows stampede out of a barn like a herd. “It’s like an iceberg. If you film the tip of an iceberg, there is much more buried underneath,” explained the director, who is a committed devotee of books and research. “If I make a movie about you I will study you. I will talk to all your neighbors, your girlfriends, your childhood friends. Then only then will I come to you with my camera. This is my method. I studied a lot about animals before I started shooting ‘Gunda.’ I spoke with scientists. Unfortunately many scientists study animals with the idea of needing to increase the production of animals to make more food, more meat. Few study them as creatures, to understand their mentality or consciousness. But I spoke with them. I also spoke in the U.S. with lawyers who specialize in defending animal rights.”

“Gunda” is a work of subdued magnificence, where Kossakovsky frames with an artist’s eye piglets suckling on milk, or two cows casually whipping their tails on a lazy afternoon. The eyes of a bull will look straight at us with real curiosity. “I watched many documentaries about animal life,” said Kossakovsky. “But shooting in 35mm was very pedagogical because you never have a lot of footage. You need to be very precise with what you want to do. You need to smell when to push the button to film. You don’t need to ‘direct’ or tell the animals what to do or not to do. You don’t interview them. But have the sense of when to record and not film too much. In a way it’s magic. I only knew the end of the story. I only knew that one day a momma pig has to be separated from her kids. This was a crucial moment and preparations to shoot that and lose a minute of it. It was 15 minutes one shot, when that sad ending happens.”

What Kossakovsky captured in the living, breathing lives of these animals, and the fate that awaits Gunda’s family when it is time for her piglets to be taken away, struck a chord with Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix, who loved “Gunda” so much he decided to attach himself as an executive producer. “This is funny but before I met him, before he saw ‘Gunda’ and told me, ‘finally someone has filmed the animals as they are,’ I actually didn’t like him! This is for a strange reason,” said Kossakovsky. “Two years prior, my film ‘Aquarela,’ came out the same day as ‘Joker’ in cinemas around the world. And of course theaters told us, ‘we cannot show this. ‘Joker’ is everywhere! It was just Joker! Joker! Joker! We couldn’t do anything. ‘Joker’ killed our distribution. I was thinking ‘who is this? What is this film?’ Then one year later he calls me and says, ‘I just saw Gunda. I want to be a part of it. I want to promote it. I want to help you finish it in the best possible way. I want everyone around the world watching it.’ So it was this total revolution and here he was, the Joker, helping me.”

Off camera “Gunda” also does have a hopeful conclusion for its main star. “Gunda is doing great,” said Kossakovsky. “She will be allowed to live out her natural life. She is not going to be killed. Of course she’s so famous now! The New York Times, The Guardian and Boston Journal have written about her. I am receiving lots of emails too from young people. Maybe my generation was not ready to care like this about animals, but young people are ready. It is a beautiful thing to see, just beautiful.”

Gunda” releases April 16 in select theaters.