The results are spellbinding. The movie opens with Gunda lounging (a preferred pastime) on a bed of hay, her body inside the enclosure and her head framed in the doorway. It’s pig heaven. Kossakovsky — who shared cinematography duties with Egil Haskjold Larsen — holds on the still shot long enough for you to admire its lapidary detail and compositional symmetry. And then: Action! As the camera pushes in, a piglet about the size of one of Gunda’s ears scrambles over her head with piping squeals and slides onto the hay outside. And then, as big mama rhythmically grunts, another piglet and then another scales her epic head and tumbles into the world.
Not much seems to happen beyond squeals and adorableness. Yet the scene’s spareness is deceptive, which is true of the entire movie. Newborns of any species tend to be delightful, and the piglets — in their tininess and charming ungainliness — prove natural-born scene stealers. Their size helps draw you toward them and even causes you to fret. They’re so small and their mother is so very, very big. Kossakovsky may not be telling an obvious story but he is communicating oceans of meaning cinematically, using images to create cascading associations, starting with the shot of the piglets emerging from the dark door, a visual echo of birth itself.
You stay with Gunda and her piglets for a while, during moments of quiet drama, blissful play and nail-biting tension. Kossakovsky shot the movie over a number of months, so the piglets grow by spurts, though never — meaningfully, as you discover — very large. Throughout the scenes of the pigs, and also those of the free-ranging chickens, Kossakovsky mostly keeps the camera at their height, rather than staring down. As Gunda plows her snout in the earth, you see how different the world, the dirt itself, looks from the Lilliputian angle of these beings. These images testify that to see, really see, through the eyes of others, four-legged or otherwise, is to be fully human.
Kossakovsky isn’t waving any flags, but “Gunda” is a reminder that the resistance to showing animals in most movies reflects how we no longer look at them, to borrow a thought from the critic John Berger. It also speaks to our unwillingness to acknowledge our abuse of other creatures and, by extension, the natural world. It is, for instance, awfully easy to eat meat; in the developed world, it requires little thought, effort or money. It’s more difficult and certainly more inconvenient to think about the violence inherent in its production, including the environmental devastation. And so, cut off from the natural world, we largely classify animals as pets or meat.