Documentary ‘Cow’: with the enormous udder and the bellowing, the questions come naturally

In my early childhood I could regularly be found in the cowsheds of Flemishrelatives. So I don’t look up at an arm that completely disappears into a cowderrière to check a uterus. Or calves that were held in a headlock to nipbudding horns in the bud.

While I’ve mostly left meat out in recent years, including at familygatherings, I’ve never considered veganism, which also involves avoiding dairyproducts. Just living as a cow to be slaughtered, isn’t that different fromliving to produce milk?

But is that really so? In her new movie cow director Andrea Arnold managesto make you feel like a cow for an hour and a half. Or for those who are lesssensitive to the immersive film techniques that are used; reminding you thatas a human you have much in common with the ruminating behemoth who may havefilled the carton of milk in your refrigerator. A confrontational experience,because it is not that much fun: being separated from your mother immediately,being pregnant non-stop to serve your owner and ending up with udders thattake on such gigantic proportions that you can barely stand on your feet.

Arnold, known for acclaimed feature films such as Fish Tank and AmericanHoney , followed the black and white dairy cow Luma on a British dairy farmfor four years. Not from a distance, but via a handheld camera that sits atopLuma’s mottled fur, capturing the look in her large black eyes or zooming inon what she may be seeing between her white lashes.

People around Luma are reduced to soothing background figures or hands. Facesare often missing from the figures who incessantly vaccinate, check or connectLuma’s body to milking machines. As a result, images that you may have seendozens of times before – in (cartoon) films that idealize rural life or inyour youth – suddenly acquire something alienating and radical.

Arnold stimulates identification purely through observation and professionalassembly. Without a voice-over explaining that cows have quite a complexemotional life, you start projecting as a viewer and discern parallels. Thisis how it starts cow smart with childbirth, a moment when human instinctsalso take over from ratio.

Only recognizable intuitive reactions are taken away from Luma. When she hascalved, she can briefly lick her young clean after which she is immediatelydirected towards the milking machines, the umbilical cord still danglingagainst her hind legs. Her calf is bottle-fed. If mother and child arepermanently separated not much later, it is difficult to interpret Luma’sbellowing as anything other than maternal despair.

Arnold goes a long way in portraying – or is it suggesting? – of parallels. Sofar that you sometimes doubt what you’re looking at. After all, Luma fitsseamlessly between the characters in Arnold’s feature film oeuvre; youngmothers and headstrong women who stubbornly hold their own in hopelesssituations full of casually transgressive behaviour. For example, shortlyafter she is separated from her young, we see Luma hanging apathetically abovea feeder. Is this convenient montage or mourning? Projection of the filmmakeror the viewer? Or pure registration? And does it matter? Broken heart syndromewas diagnosed earlier in animals than in humans. Just like in Arnold’s featurefilms, it is not all doom and gloom, we also see Luma and her offspringfrolicking in a meadow.

Also read an interview with Andrea Arnold about ‘Cow’: ‘ Look at a cow as asentient living creature’

Luma isn’t the only farm animal recently elevated to an individual andgarnering attention as a movie star. Not illogical, now that the way and scalein which agriculture and livestock farming is done are under a magnifyingglass. Last year there was Victor Kossakovski’s gunda , in which we follow asow after farrowing a litter. In Cannes went in May EO premiere, whichfollows the trials of a donkey, a tribute to Robert Bresson’s classic AuHasard Baltazar. Closer to home was family film last weekend grunt the bigwinner during the presentation of the Golden Calves. An animation film, butone in which the character of a piglet becomes clear through his behavior andexpressions, not because a human provides him with a voice or voice-over.

Compared to some of the above movies, it seems cow relatively mild forlivestock farmers. Although those could also be projections from theundersigned, who in the past was not very sentimental about cows andbenevolent towards farmers. Farmers are not evil with Arnold; rather, they arecreatures that are quite friendly and seemingly perform their duties onautopilot. Just like Luma, we see them continuously at work, holidays or not.We don’t hear their considerations and reservations, so they don’t seem tohave them either. That fits perfectly with Arnold’s feature film oeuvre, wherepeople do terrible things to each other but never seem purely evil.

It makes cow one of the most interesting films about animal husbandry ofrecent times. One that doesn’t point the finger or feel like too simplistic apamphlet for veganism. But who, through astonishment and inversion, makes asincere attempt to address the absurdity of our current dealings with animals.