I have tried meditating but I have yet to achieve full enlightenment. I can tell because I’m fairly certain that my thoughts are still as unpredictable and relentless as everyone else’s. Still, there’s something in it, something genuinely interesting about observing one’s own mind at work, conflicting ideas and opinions and worries fizzing about noisily. Which ones are really me? And which ones aren’t?
It is right to say, as many people already have, that the new film Gunda (directed by Viktor Kossakovsky and executively produced by Joaquin Phoenix) is truly meditative. It is quiet, there are no people, there isn’t even any music… there are just farm animals; pigs, cows and chickens, shot up close, living as they do in the mud and the fields. There is no Attenborough-style commentary, no one there to impart facts about the habits of newborn piglets. We are simply shown these creatures, often in long, single takes, as they oink and squawk at each other. So accustomed to narrative and action and human presence in cinema, this is, perhaps, slightly confusing at first. Isn’t something missing? But no, I don’t think so.
During the film, my mind wandered, but never away from it (I did not think of my work, or my friends, or my dinner). Rather, it wandered about like one might on a farm, through the barns and over the fences; at times I was happy and smiled at the deep bond between the wonderful sow and her litter. Later on, I was moved and pitied them. At one moment I thought of human compassion and our great capacity for kindness towards creatures less powerful than us. Later, I wondered if we should be ashamed of the way we treat these fantastic beasts, and if future generations will be disgusted by what to them will seem like unfathomable cruelty.
The film itself, though, doesn’t preach. There’s too much reality and nature in it for that. It isn’t a film about the mistreatment and exploitation of animals; it isn’t Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja (2017). It isn’t didactic. Instead, it is beautiful: the camerawork is remarkable. The sweeping shots reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky, and Roma (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón. There is something epic in the style, a rawness in the black and white, and the farm animals seem majestic, almost as if they are mythical creatures from folklore.
The quiet is another thing. It is always there, and all you ever hear are the animal noises; the birds in the trees, the wind in the branches, the pattering rain when it comes. Music is such an important part of cinema, and yet here the very lack of any music is essential. There is no orchestra soaring, or brooding synthesizers telling you what to feel. It is up to us to feel and think what we do about the nervous chickens, the gallivanting cows.
For some reason, in life, these sorts of animals are often the butt of jokes. We do not take them seriously, we don’t look at them in awe, and unlike lions and crocodiles and eagles they don’t impress us. In Gunda, the cows look straight down the camera, unblinkingly, like trained actors. They’re daring us to laugh at them, it seems, and you wonder why you ever did.
There is a one-legged chicken hopping about gingerly in the shade, and at that point, I wondered if a one-legged chicken really knows that it is a one-legged chicken – whether it looks at the others jealously and feels miserable. I doubt it. I suspect it just goes on, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, resolute, knowing nothing else. Strange thoughts? Maybe. This spectacular film gives you acres upon acres of space to think and to feel. It is the opposite of escapism. It’s truthful and invigorating, as great art always is.
It should be seen on the big screen. Perhaps it might be your first trip to the cinema post-lockdown. It would be an appropriate choice, what with all the open air and the vast, bright grey skies, unequivocally outdoors and as far away as you can get from being at home. A different world from that of Zoom calls and television press conferences. But it isn’t, of course; it’s the same world as ours. And that’s where the thinking starts.