Russian director Victor Kossakovsky returned to documentary festival IDFA – where he has been a frequent guest, and won awards with “Pavel and Lyalya” and “Belovy” – with “Gunda,” a film that made a statement in more ways than one. Shot entirely in black and white, without voiceover or music, it documents the life and times of a pig named Gunda and the piglets she raises on an unnamed farm somewhere—a scenario that does not end well for either pigs or audience. Unsurprisingly, Kossakovsky is a vegetarian, and, as he told journalist Derk Sauer, this immersive experience has personal roots.
“When I was four years old,” he recalled, “I spent some months in a village, and there was a piglet there. Probably he was one month [old], and at Christmas he became my best friend. He was really my best friend, we had fun together, we spent time together—and then they killed him, of course, and they ate him.”
It’s a dark story, with a stark message that Kossakovsky was happy to deliver. “It’s easy to make films about what we understand,” he said. “We know, all of us, that war is bad. Then why make a film about it, if it’s obvious? We have to make films about what is not obvious, and what’s not obvious is our double [standards]. Of course, [war] is interesting, of course it’s important … but for me, it’s a question: Why is there war? Why are we still killing people? And I have an answer: because we allow ourselves to accept killing. We are killing 1 billion pigs every year, we are killing 50 billion chickens every year, we are killing over 0.5 billion cows every year, we are killing over 1 trillion fish every year. We are doing this—we accept killing. We just decided not to think about it. We know it exists, but we don’t think about it. We allow ourselves to make a double consciousness.”
Warming to his theme, he went a little further. “And another thing,” he said. “We talk about global warming, climate change, saving the planet. We talk about the damage we cause to the planet. And what do we do? Nothing. We just talk about it. If you want to save the planet, just stop eating meat, because 30% of the damage we do our planet is coming from the meat industry. That’s what it is. It’s so simple—we have to kill these billions of animals. We need to freeze them, transport them, cut them, cook them. You don’t need to start a revolution. You don’t need to [replace Donald] Trump [with] someone else. You don’t need to do anything. You just need to do one single thing. Stop eating meat. Simple as that.”
After finishing the film, and before its Berlin premiere in early 2020, Kossakovsky found some stellar support for the film, notably from renowned vegan Joaquin Phoenix. “It’s quite a funny story,” said Kossakovsky. “So, he got the Oscar for ‘Joker,’ right. And he made a speech, and as he made the speech, my telephone started ringing—all my team were calling me, my American friends were calling me, saying, ‘Did you write his speech?’ I said no. And they said, ‘But he’s saying what you’re saying every day.’”
To put this into context, Kossakovsky talked a little about his process. “I’m an old-style director,” he said. “Like, I knew that Fellini would give a motivational speech in the morning, before [the crew] would start shooting. And also some of the directors in the Soviet Union [would do that]. I was an assistant when I was 17 years old, and I remember some old-school filmmakers would make a motivational speech in the morning, just to make a good mood. So every morning I make a motivational speech. I speak about the meaning of life or something, just to make my team happy, because I believe if someone in the team is unhappy you will see it on the screen. Even if the focus-puller is unhappy, you will have problems with the focus. If I’m unhappy, then everyone will feel the director was drunk or depressed.”
“And with ‘Gunda,’” he continued, “I was talking about how we must love animals, how they are beautiful, how they’re sensitive … I was talking about all of this every day, something like this in different ways, and suddenly [at the Oscars] Joaquin Phoenix [is saying this] exactly word by word. And we decided, ‘We have to find a way to show this film to Joaquin.’ And when he saw it, he immediately called me—he said, “Wow, someone finally made it!’”