A sow and her brood, plus some chickens and cows, go about their everyday lives — that dull-sounding scenario, when filmed by director Victor Kossakovsky, in “Gunda,” becomes mesmerizing. As it immerses viewers in the world of farm animals and debunks the notion that such creatures don’t have feelings, this people-free documentary is unique and stunning.
Kossakovsky, whose credits include the water-themed “Aquarela,” has made an observational film (opening Friday at the Embarcadero) containing poetic black-and-white cinematography, an animal-rights message, and unhurried pacing that reflects its subjects’ down-to-earth lives. Humans never appear, nor does commentary or onscreen text. Subjects speak in grunts, clucks, and moos.
A nonfiction counterpart of Babe or Okja, Gunda is a large pig who lives on a Norwegian farm. She lies inside her hut, looking out at the world, in the opening scene. Several of Gunda’s 12 or so tiny newborn piglets topple out of the sty and then climb back inside, where all of the wee ones push their way to Gunda’s teats and feed voraciously.
A tag on Gunda’s ear indicates that the animal is property, and given that Gunda and her babies are pigs in a meat-eating world, we know that this film won’t likely end happily.
Kossakovsky follows Gunda’s motherhood experience. The piglets frolic outdoors, form a social order of sorts, and grow quickly. Gunda watches over them and sometimes nudges them forward with her snout.
The action shifts to other farms and species for a spell. Chickens, including a one-legged bird finding its footing, and cows, set free from a barn and presented in slow motion, have the spotlight.
These animals are pleasant enough, but they lack the depth and character of Gunda and her experiences, and we’re glad when Kossakovsky returns to Gunda’s story.
What has been a rather meager narrative thus far features a devastating turn of events when humans, in the form of machinery, enter the picture in the final act. The effect on Gunda, while Kossakovsky has wisely refrained from anthropomorphizing, clearly is intensely emotional.
Even the smaller moments prove rewarding in this documentary, in which Kossakovsky shows how compelling “slow” observational cinema can be when the material captured by the camera is stellar and presented skillfully and with inspiration.
Astutely located cameras have allowed Kossakovsky to film the goings-on in Gunda’s hut, with fascinating results. These include close-up views of piglet feeding sessions and, more disturbingly, footage of Gunda dealing with a runt in ways that will shock many.
Also effective are the black-and-white cinematography, which prevents sentiment or heart-tugging (“What cute little pink piglets!”), and an ambient soundtrack featuring bird, insect, weather and other farm noises.
Gunda herself is an imposing presence who moves the film forward and supplies the late-inning emotional wallop.
Few, if any, films have more effectively documented an animal’s capacity for deep and complicated feeling. Kossakovsky merits applause for bringing this amazing appreciation of farm animals into being.
Directed by: Victor Kossakovsky
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
“The Last Animals,” also addresses what humans inflict on other creatures, in this case examining how poaching has caused the almost certain extinction of Africa’s northern white rhinos and is threatening to doom elephants similarly.
Directed by war photojournalist Kate Brooks, this well-crafted investigative documentary (available on various streaming platforms) travels the globe to study the plight of these two species, killed for their horns and tusks, and the sophisticated global crime of poaching.
At Asian markets, we see merchants selling jewelry and “medicine” made from rhinoceros horns (which consist of the same material as fingernails and have no known health benefits) for exorbitant prices.
We visit zoos where the last of these rhinos live.
So dire is the fate of this animal that its numbers dwindle from five to three before our eyes. Its only hope for survival is in the laboratory, where genetic material has been preserved.
Footage of cute baby northern white rhinos interacting with humans illustrates the animal’s gentleness.
Elephants, Brooks says, also could vanish entirely. Wildlife footage highlights the majestic nature of these animals. A shot of a massacred elephant family illustrates the horror they face.
The film serves as a call for governments to prosecute poachers and end the ivory trade, which even when operating legally, as is the case in the United States, can serve as a front for poachers.
Presenting the ongoing war against poachers, the film features some inspiring heroes, like DNA researcher Samuel Wasser and the rangers risking their lives in Congo’s Garamba National Park. It also connects poaching to other criminal networks, including the narcotics trade, and to terrorists.
This isn’t rosy viewing. But believing that, as residents of the planet, we should take serious note of the extinction crisis, Brooks lays out the facts and makes clear the urgency. This film deserves attention.
The Last Animals
Directed by: Kate Brooks
Written by: Kate Brooks, Mark Monroe
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes