One of the most unlikely of cinematic ventures looks set to be among the very best discoveries of 2021.


Not many documentaries are works of art but that was how I regarded Aquarela when I viewed it in December 2019. It was a film by Victor Kossakovsky, a Berlin-based Russian filmmaker whose name can also appear as Viktor Kossakovskiy and it was the first piece by him to be released here. Now we have a second, Gunda, and I find myself declaring that what was a near-masterpiece has been followed by a total masterpiece. Indeed, I would go further and assert that on the basis of these two films Kossakovsky has the right to be regarded as one of the most remarkable film directors working today. I say that not only because of the quality of the work but on account of the fact that, although both are documentaries, they are stylistically utterly different and each is so individual that it is unlike any other movie.


Until you see it, you might be forgiven for assuming that Gunda fits naturally into the genre of standard nature films and it certainly examines animals using astounding photography that gets really close to them. However, most such works use colour to capture the creatures and their landscapes vividly whereas this film is shot in black-and-white and, in contrast to works featuring the great Sir David Attenborough, it eschews any kind of commentary.  Similarly, there is no music. Most strikingly of all, it chooses to put the principal focus on animals of the most humdrum kind: pigs. What Kossakovsky is aiming to do is to turn the viewer into a detailed observer of a sow - that’s Gunda - and of her litter first seen as newborn piglets and then as they grow. In the process, he makes us see the wondrous in the ordinary. Furthermore, he reduces the gap between human beings and animals.


To devote a whole film to this is a challenging business and Kossakovsky is clever enough to realise that we will be more engrossed in viewing the pigs over this period of time if he also interpolates footage of other animals to provide variety. Thus it is that in similar style we are shown hens emerging from their henhouse and encounter a solitary one-legged chicken. Then, after more scenes with the pigs, a sequence is included in which cows appear en masse, their heads in many cases studied in close-up. Kossakovsky is a photographer as well as being the director and co-editor and here he shares the credit for the splendid photography with Egil Håskjold Larsen. In point of fact while the scenes with the pigs were filmed in Norway, the other sequences feature farms in the UK and Spain, but the shooting style ensures that they blend together perfectly.


Gunda is a film that contains no human figures and its quiet detailed observation may be something that will bore some viewers but, if so, it is their loss. The one basic link that this film shares with Attenborough’s TV pieces is a total respect for the animals, yet Kossakovsky goes further by asking us to share the lives of the pigs in a way that ultimately causes us without manipulation to identify with them emotionally. This is something which could not have been achieved had the film been faster or shorter. It feels less extreme than its only possible predecessor, that French animal study centred on an orangutan, Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette (2010), and those who can adapt to this film’s methods will, I think, ultimately be surprised by the extent to which their involvement has built up so as to result in a climactic scene possessed of a huge impact. Gunda is an astonishing film but, given the challenge of holding the audience with such basic material, the most remarkable thing of all is that when the film concludes and you check the time you realise that it felt shorter than it actually was.




Featuring  Gunda.


Dir Viktor Kossakovskiy, Pro Anita Rehoff Larsen, Ex Pro Joaquin Phoenix, Screenplay Viktor Kossakovskiy and Ainara Vera, Ph Viktor Kossakovskiy and Egil Håskjold Larsen, Ed Viktor Kossakovskiy and Ainara Vera.


Hailstone Films/Louverture Films/Artemis Rising Foundation/Empathy Arts/Norwegian Film Institute-Altitude Film Distribution.
93 mins. Norway/USA/Spain. 2020. Rel: 4 June 2021. Cert. PG.