Joaquin Phoenix executive-produced pig movie Gunda is not a wildlife doc

We spoke with director Viktor Kossakovsky about his wordless exploration of the world of a sow and her piglets.

Gunda is being billed as an experimental documentary, though I think that descriptor is a bit of a misnomer considering that its experimentation is really an absolute absence of experimental techniques. Gunda is an immersive documentary about a pig (the titular Gunda) and her life on the farm with her piglets. It’s shot in black-and-white and entirely devoid of music, narration, title cards or anything resembling traditional documentary narrative tools. All we hear are the sounds of the farm, which have been mixed and augmented to create a certain effect. There’s a throughline to Gunda that becomes obvious about halfway through, if it wasn’t already obvious by the presence of notorious vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix in the executive producer’s chair. Suffice to say that director Viktor Kossakovsky doesn’t need to tell us what he thinks about animal farming for us to know exactly what he thinks about it — but, as luck would have it, I spoke with Kossakovsky about his film.

First things first: How do you choose a pig for a film like Gunda? Does one audition pigs?

“We had planned four to six months of scouting,” explains Kossakovsky. “But I was so lucky — I found it on the first trip, on the first day, on the first farm! We had made a map of 120 farms we wanted to visit during half a year, and we met Gunda on the first farm, and it happened very beautifully. The farm had over 20 pigs together under the same roof. And suddenly, Gunda, she came to me. She immediately looked at me in a way, a kind of friendship. There is an expression: I am like a washing machine, any woman can operate me. She knew which button to push. (laughs) She chose me, and I said immediately to my producer, ‘We don’t have to search anymore. We have the pig!’ My producer said, ‘No, no, no! We still have time!’ and I said, ‘Look at her! She is communicating with me. She chose me!’

“I knew she was pregnant and was about to give birth,” he continues. “So I looked at the house where she lived and would normally give birth and I drew it out. I wanted to make it in a way so that the camera — not even the camera, the lens — could move inside at 360 degrees while also keeping the camera and the crew outside. Then, a week before we started shooting, I’d come in every morning at 4 a.m. She became my friend. She knew already that I existed. My team came in a few days before the shoot so she would already know us by smell. When the babies were born, she already accepted us as friends. For the babies, it was easy — we were already when they were born.”

In that sense, Gunda isn’t dramatically different from your average nature documentary, but one striking thing about the way the film is put together is that Gunda and her piglets (not to mention the one-legged chicken who takes a supporting role eventually) never really interact with the camera. They never come up to it and bump it, lick the lens or splatter mud onto it; even when the camera gets very close, it never seems to intrude on the animals’ lives.

“Maybe it’s luck,” says Kossakovsky. “Normally, yes, they can come, they can sniff, they can spoil the image. It’s good that they’re not running away, but it’s also good when they aren’t touching the lens or licking it. I’m generally a lucky filmmaker. If I need rain, it will rain. If you saw my film Aquarela, there was a part where the scientists told me I needed to plan three months ahead in order to get a shot I needed. I came and in one minute, I just put my tripod down and it happened! Everything I needed happened in the way I needed. For example, at the end of the film, I knew she would come to me. I didn’t want to zoom, I didn’t want to push in. I didn’t want to include music. I needed her to come to me, and I knew she would. She will come, because I’m her friend. No one believed me, no one could see why she would come to me, but she did it and she made it beautiful. The best actor cannot do what Gunda does in this movie, because it’s one take. You cannot do it again. Beautiful. So dramatic. 

“It’s the magic of cinema,” he continues. “There are many theories – particularly in your city, by the way – about what is the correct film. They say three elements must be in the film: story, character and cinematic language. And I say, ‘Correct, correct… wrong!’ Story? Not necessary. Cinema was born not to tell but to show. Character? Okay, character. It doesn’t have to be human characters. But the most important is cinematic language. There is one missing element: magic. Without magic, there is no film. For the first weekend, you make a film without magic and you can sell tickets to it. But if you want your film not to die tomorrow or in 10 days, there must be an element of magic. This is why I have a secret. Shall I tell you? I think the Cinema God is my co-screenwriter. What it means is I always include in my films episodes which you cannot repeat. Something happens in life, and viewers know it’s one take. It cannot be something that someone tried a few times to get. It looks like a metaphor, but it’s just the truth.” ■

Gunda is now playing at Cinéma du Parc. Watch the trailer here:

Gunda, directed by Viktor Kossakovsky, executive-produced by Joaquin Phoenix

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