In addition to her other film projects, celebrated British director Andrea Arnold spent four years working on her first documentary cow. The film took so much time because it follows a dairy cow from birth to death. Arnold is known for penetrating feature films such as Fish Tank (2009) and American Honey (2016). The switch to documentary is not as big as it might seem at first glance. Arnold always works in and with reality in her feature films – as a result, her work is remarkably raw, authentic and devoid of overly ostentatious moralism.
In front of cow she settled regularly on a fairly average farm in Kent. She follows her cow Luma first as a calf, then shows how she is being prepared for milk production, how Luma brings her own calves into the world and how her economic value gradually decreases as she can give less milk. Arnold does not emphatically seek compassion for the animal in the viewer. There is no commentary – the viewer has to answer the question whether or not this is an ethical way of dealing with an animal.
It turns out to be remarkably easy to stay captivated for a long time by the non-human protagonist of cow. “I have noticed from the reactions that people mainly project a lot of themselves on the film,” says Arnold in November during a visit to the Amsterdam documentary festival IDFA. “The film evokes in some people associations with difficult periods in their own lives: associations with being locked up in a prison, or painful events in their own relationship with their mother.
“I thought I had made a gentle film, but the reactions sometimes turn out to be quite intense. I thought I had made a film about a cow, but from the reactions I conclude that there may be other themes that come up as well. That in itself is not so strange. If you work intensively on a film, subjects and themes will inevitably end up in it that are of great importance to you personally. It doesn’t have to be conscious at all. Never before have I been able to bring about such an open dialogue with the audience with a film.”
What were the most striking reactions for you?
“I don’t want to go into too much detail about that. I absolutely can’t stand it when someone starts explaining their own work extensively to the public. That can only hurt the conversation about the film. I think it’s good if viewers give their own meaning to the film.”
That freedom for the viewer is also in your films themselves. You always leave a lot of room for interpretation.
“That’s a movie, isn’t it? The world is very polarized right now. That may be the effect of social media. We only take information in small chunks on Twitter and Instagram. This may mean that we are less and less curious in our thinking. With my films I try to arouse the curiosity of the viewer, much more than imposing a certain vision on the viewer.”
You’re very involved with the social themes in your movies, but you don’t make activist movies.
“Some people see my films that way. People are never just good or evil. They can do something absolutely evil and do a good deed on the same day. We are very imperfect beings.
“There are so many other colors between black and white. Polarization doesn’t get us much further. People’s behavior often has everything to do with the world they come from. Some people can’t behave at all differently than they do. Should we just write off such people?”
You are not expressing an explicit judgment even about our current relationship with animals.
“So I don’t want to say too much about that. But this: the film was made from the idea that we as humans have lost contact with nature. I’ve had that feeling for a long time. I myself grew up in a large housing complex with social housing on the outskirts of London. My mother was sixteen when I was born and my father eighteen. My father was never there, maybe my mother was just too young to raise children. As a result, I had a very free childhood, without too much supervision.
“Our residential complex was close to nature. As a child I was always outside playing. When things exploded again at home, I went outside to relax in nature. After that I could handle the umpteenth drama at home better. I have always maintained that connection with nature. That’s why there are so many scenes with animals in all my movies. For me, that’s a very natural way of expressing myself. If I have a scene with a character who is furious, I immediately put one in. That happens almost unnoticed.
Read the review of ‘Cow’
“As humans, we are part of nature. We are animals. Smart animals maybe, but animals. The film is my humble attempt to let that realization sink in. Now look at an animal, a cow, as a conscious living creature, with which we as humans are connected. Don’t look away, because that’s what people do all too often. We often don’t want to know where the food in our stores comes from.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 5, 2022