A Sad Short Life
It’s a sad short life. Animals, whose average age in the wild would have been twenty plus years, are now worked to death during their brief 4 to 5 year period on earth as industrial dairy cows. Being pregnant for most of their life (like humans, they produce milk to feed their babies) their bodies wear out quickly and they are “spent” by age 5, at which time they are slaughtered for second grade meat that goes into animal food and the occasional burger
Bookended by Births.
In “Cow”, Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold (“Red Road, “Fish Tank”) focuses her camera on one such individual, a Holstein Friesian named Luma. The film was filmed over four years and then edited down to a ninety minute running time. It is bookended by the births of Lumas calves both of whom are taken from her. The calf is just barely able to stand before it is dumped into a truck with other frightened newborns and transported to another facility. If the calf is male, then the probability that the new destination is a slaughterhouse is very high indeed.
The Diegetic Soundscape
With no narration and no musical score, Luma’s mooing following her separation from her babies is heartbreaking although there is always a major anthropomorphic element to a documentary like this. In fact, “Cow’s” diegetic sound design is one of it’s many pleasures. We hear what the cows hear: humans talking and the never ending music blaring over the intercom. I had to laugh when The Pogues “Fairy Tale of New York” came on.
Luma “Looks” Directly at the Camera
Director of photography Magda Kowalczyk does wonders with her hand-held camera kept as close as possible to Luma in the claustrophobic conditions of the milking parlor. This footage is intercut with the occasional Luma POV shot and, best of all, scenes of Luma “looking” directly into the camera. These takes, together with the brief periods of respite when the cows are actually allowed to eat real grass from a real field on a beautiful summer’s day are the most engaging in the film. Luma is individualized. Looking straight at us, she is a living sentient being and not just a commodity.
Of course Luma’s short life is always leading to that fateful day. Arnold does not shy away from this. However, because she keeps her focus on Luma, we are not privy to the horrific scenes of death, panic and shit that were a central part of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978) in which one of the central characters worked in a slaughterhouse. Arnold has decided to give us a reprieve and we willingly take it.