When Victor Kossakovsky was four years old, his parents sent him from St. Petersburg to stay with his uncle’s family in the countryside. “It was a cold winter,” he says of Zoom. “Minus 30 degrees.”
The warmth came from the boy’s friendship with a month-old piglet named Vasya. They were inseparable – until she became chops for New Year’s Eve supper.
“When they ate it, for me it was a total disaster,” Kossakovsky says. “You killed my best friend!” he cried out to his relatives. And so, he jokes, he became the first vegetarian in the Soviet Union.
Half a century later, Kossakovsky went vegan, as he began production on Gunda, a documentary filmed in Norway, Wales and England with a sow, which gives its name to the title, a pair of cows. aging and a one-legged chicken.
Gunda is no ordinary wildlife documentary. There is no narration or soundtrack. Instead, in glorious monochrome, we watch the animals simply exist: they feed, sniff, huddle, care for their young, and roam the fields. It turns out that no digital trickery or anthropomorphic narrative is necessary for us to fall in love with it.
“I see documentary films as an art form, so I didn’t put words or music in there,” Kossakovsky says of the aesthetic. “That’s why when we speak I need to express it all because I am burning.
Gunda is not, he says, vegan propaganda. Yet there is no doubt that the man himself is as much an activist as an artist. On set, he gathered the crew every day at 5 a.m. and gave a motivational speech, reminding them why this 20-year-old passion project in the making was so vital to humanity.
“The difference between a normal person and a filmmaker is that a filmmaker can see things that a normal person cannot see,” he says. “This is why cinema exists: not to tell you a story but to show you things that you cannot see, that you did not want to see or that you chose to ignore. Every day people choose to ignore what they know about how food got to the table. “
Gunda was the toast of the Berlin Film Festival in February 2020; the last such event before the global pandemic. Earlier that month, Joaquin Phoenix, Hollywood’s most active vegan, launched a rally cry for the lifestyle while accepting his best actor Oscar for Joker.
“We go into the natural world,” he said, “and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even if her cries of anguish are undeniable. Then we take his milk which is intended for his calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereals.
Immediately after the speech, Kossakovsky says, “people started calling me and asking if I was writing it because what he was saying was what I would tell my crew every day.” British director Lynne Ramsay, who had worked with Phoenix on You Were Never Really Here, helped get her a copy of Gunda.
Phoenix called his director at the time of the credits. “Wow, someone filmed themPhoenix said. ” Not us. Not us killing them. Not at the slaughterhouse. But them. Their personality. I want to be part of it.
The actor came on board as an executive producer and helped spread the word publicly, as well as encouraging friends such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón and Gus van Sant to follow suit. (Kossakovsky was also the first person to reveal both the birth and name of Phoenix’s son, River, last September.)
Phoenix’s involvement was a game-changer, Kossakovsky says today. Although he himself was a relatively important name in the Russian documentary arena, his reach was limited. In Europe, he thinks, “we know how to make films, but we don’t know how to show films. America is the only country that knows how to promote films. “
Presentation is clearly important to Kossakovsky. For our Zoom call in the early afternoon, he’s wearing a black tuxedo jacket and white shirt. Is he going somewhere cool? ” No. I knew I was going to talk to you. So I wore this. It’s just my way of doing things, ”he said gently. Every now and then he lifts a long, clear glass into the frame and takes a sip of black tea.
In fact, he makes a great, gentle singer, he remains gentle throughout our conversation, every word – even if it’s about the hydroeconomics of intensive farming – sounding like a lullaby.
He looks forward to not just preaching to converts, he says. “I don’t make films for myself. I don’t make films for people who believe in nature, or just vegetarians. I make films for everyone, even for those who don’t share my opinions.
Yet he loves the letters testifying to Gunda’s power to make people give up eating animals forever (his own children, he proudly says, have never tasted meat).
Today he lives in Berlin, which is a great place for vegan food. When he came to the UK to film the non-pig parts of Gunda, he was applauded by the number of animal sanctuaries. You can see how such institutions would impress a man for whom direct action is not something to shy away from. When we speak, he is still recovering from a six-day hunger strike to support Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny. “It was not a political act,” he says. “It was an act of empathy for her mother, who to me was Gunda. Her child was taken from her. We stopped because our request was that he receive a visit from a doctor. I was so happy because at least her mother could breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t consider myself a hero.
What about Gunda herself? She too is now safe: the farmer who raised her felt unable to slaughter the sow after watching the film. The piglets, however, were taken from him during the filming, and the contemplation of their fate still causes pain in Kossakovsky.
The ability of cinema to win hearts and minds cannot be underestimated, he says. “We have had the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution, the Sexual Revolution, the Social Revolution and the time has come for the Empathy Revolution.”