★★★★★ - STUFF
- Why a black-and-white documentary about a pig is 2021's best movie so far -
“This reviewer only likes black-and-white dramas about ballet dancers.”
It's still my favourite online response to anything I've written. I can't remember what I wrote to elicit the comment. Probably something less-than-reverential about a superhero yarn. But I liked the comment so much I had a T-shirt printed that I wore happily for years.
I thought about that anonymous commenter again last night, watching Gunda, wondering how they would react when they find out that my favourite film of 2021 so far, by a muddy country mile, is a black-and- white documentary about a pig.
Gunda, which has arrived with little fanfare and is playing in a lamentably small number of cinemas, is simply the most astonishing, moving, engrossing and beautiful film I've seen in months. And it achieves it without music, without dialogue, without human characters and without any precedent I know of.
The film takes place over about six months. It is laid out in a series of mostly very-nearly still shots, in luminous black-and-white, with the camera almost always close to the ground, in the domain and the eyeline of one hugely stoic sow, whose name, in the Scandinavian languages, means “woman warrior”.
We watch as Gunda and her brood of newborn piglets go about their day. They feed and roam in the paddocks that surround the barn that provides their shelter. We learn, pretty quickly, how different each of these piglets is from their siblings, as they explore the world around them and define their relationships to each other. We fear for their lives as the mighty Gunda wallows and steps among them and we despair of the single, limping, runt surviving another day.
Occasionally, we pay a visit to an admirably nimble one-legged chicken, belligerently making her way in the world, hopping and flapping through a series of moments that seem as purposeful to her as they are inexplicable and hilarious to us.
And once, for one wildly cinematic and breathtaking interlude, we watch as a small herd of cows are released into a new field, galloping and leaping through the silvery mists as though they were suddenly possessed by the spirits of their ancestors on some tropical savanna.
Put like that, maybe Gunda still doesn't sound like much. A “nature doco” maybe, albeit one with better- than-average cinematography. But that doesn't even come close to capturing what this film achieves. Director Victor Kossakovsky (Aquarela) has a photographer's gift for finding profoundly moving moments hiding in plain sight within everyday objects and occurrences.
If our own Ans Westra ever turned her formidable eye to making a wordless film about life on a farm, the results might even be similar to what Kossakovsky achieves here.
But Kossakovsky travels far beyond beauty and somehow knits together a story out of all this. There is a tale being told here, one you won't see and hear clearly at first, but by the time the final passage of Gunda arrives, we realise that a deeply involving and eventually devastating narrative has been laid out. Without dialogue, without people, without any of the anthropomorphising drivel that “nature docos” too often demean themselves with, Gunda draws us in, makes us care and then quite deliberately and surgically breaks our hearts.
Any competent filmmaker can “show” us stuff. And a good one can make us see things in a way we might not have bothered to before. But Kossakovsky takes us to another level with Gunda and he compels us to watch. We don't just observe these animals lives, we witness them. The difference is distinct and it makes us acknowledge our complicity here.
Gunda is a triumph of editing and filmmaking technique. There is nothing showy or hollowly spectacular here, just one perfectly judged and placed shot after another, without a single wasted frame. Beneath it all, Kossakovsky and sound designer Alexander Dudarev build another, parallel world. We hear the hiss of traffic on a busy road, somewhere nearby but unseen. We know there is machinery and human activity all around us, but it is never allowed to intrude on our contemplation of these animals lives. Until, finally, it must.
I honestly believe that in a couple of years, when the next tranche of those essentially meaningless “greatest films of all time” lists are being compiled, that Gunda will start to make an appearance.
I do know for sure, in eight months time, when people are asking me what the best film I saw in 2021 was, I'll answer without hesitation, “it was a black-and-white documentary about a pig”. Hell, I might even make another T-shirt.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Gunda is now playing limited sessions at Light House Petone and Cuba!