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A Question of Empathy: Viktor Kossakovsky on Gunda

Gunda (courtesy of NEON)

Born in what was then Leningrad, U.S.S.R., Viktor Kossakovsky embarked on his journey to become one of the world’s most celebrated and elemental nonfiction filmmakers with a love of photography and a desire to explore the complexities of Russian history. After taking on various below-the-line roles at the Leningrad Studio of Documentaries, Kossakovsky directed his first feature, Losev, a black-and-white portrait of the elderly Russian philosopher Aleksei Fedorovich Losev. For his next black-and-white film, The Belovs, Kossakovsky turned inward, documenting a spirited but warring brother and his sister living on a farm in a western Russian village he had visited as a child. The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) awarded the film its Joris Ivens Award. Kossakovsky’s career would continue unabated for the next 30 years, documenting everything from roadwork in Saint Petersburg in Tishe! to the omnipresent nature of water in Aquarela.

Kossakovsky’s latest feature, Gunda, returns the filmmaker to black-and-white imagery and to the village setting of The Belovs, although this time the focus is placed squarely on the livestock. Simultaneously unobtrusive and involving, Gunda throws the observant viewer headfirst into the daily routines of a mother pig and her children. The piglets feed, fight and play as the head of the household-cum-barnyard oversees the lay of the land. Other animals, including roaming cows and curious chickens, make cameo appearances.

In its experimental form and narrative structure, Gunda presents a new way to view familiar sights. Long takes make the film’s duration part of its concept—or, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s nifty pull-quote declares in the opening seconds of the film’s theatrical trailer, “Gunda is a film to take a bath in.” Devoid of explanatory title cards, voiceover narration or a musical score, Kossakovsky’s film allows the viewer’s keen eye to observe the natural rhythms of these animals’ lives, a heartwarming and curious experience fatally interrupted by the capitalist intentions of man. Although the film concludes on a heartbreaking note for Gunda’s dear piglets, there’s something deeply profound in her reaction to being robbed of her children once more. Gunda is currently in release from NEON.

Filmmaker: You gave a talk at the Berlinale last year where you said that 90 percent of critics write only about subject and story, 10 percent write about form and none write about reason—about why the filmmaker is making the movie. With Gunda having screened all over the world now, I’m curious whether you’ve noticed that trend continue in reviews for this film.

Kossakovsky: Yes, and I’ve noticed three categories of reaction to this film. The first is of people telling me, “I cannot imagine eating meat anymore.” That category of reaction is beautiful to me. The second category is related to the film’s importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gunda and my previous film, Aquarela, sort of predicted the pandemic in the form of a warning. When I was at the Sundance Film Festival with Aquarela, I said, “If we do not stop doing what we are doing, nature will punish us and push us away. Nature will be happy without humans, as humans are a destructive force.” And then the third category of reaction are groups of people asking me, “Why is the film in black and white? Why are you doing long shots? What is your artistic motivation for these choices?”

The other day, I had a very good discussion with someone who finally asked me about the distance between the camera and the protagonist and the distance between ethics and aesthetics. I believe that what’s most important in documentary is the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. They’re connected in a way in which no other art form can connect them. There is no music, for example, that is as connected to ethics as are documentary films. It’s an absolutely unique connection.

This connection has also meant a lot to my personal life. I’m sure you’ve already heard the stories about the piglet I had when I was four years old? When that piglet was one month old, he became my best friend. We really had a great time. And then, one day, he was killed by my relatives for Christmas and New Year’s Eve lunch and dinner. It was a disaster for me, and this memory has stayed with me all my life, leading to my eventually becoming a vegetarian.

When I was five or six years old, I became interested in photography. Every weekend, I would go into the forest and take photos of the landscape, like the clouds and the birds, etc. Photography became my passion, and I took photos for my own soul. When you turn 14 years old in Russia, you have to decide what you want to pursue as a career. I had two wishes: to be a forest ranger who protects animals or to be a cameraman. I fought over what I wanted to do for several months. I eventually decided that I would become a cameraman and worked for a film studio as an assistant cameraman, loading film into camera magazines.

When I learned how to edit film, I realized that the camera negative is literally made from the bones of animals. This was hugely catastrophic for me! I wanted to dedicate all my life to cinema, and to cinematography in particular. Then, I learned about animal bones being used to make celluloid and… wow, fuck. This was a huge shock for my life.

From then on, I was trying to make as few rushes as possible. My most famous film, The Belovs, was made 1:3, meaning I filmed three hours of footage and the final film was one hour. That was my theology, not to film or press record until I really knew what I needed and was ready to roll footage. Only film what is most important to you! Only film what you cannot possibly live without. If you know that you cannot live without a particular shot, then film it, but only then. That’s what I meant when I said the filmmaker’s motivation for making a film is the most important thing for critics to write about.

Filmmaker: The Belovs also takes place on a farm, although in that film the subjects are of the human variety, two adult siblings named Mikhail and Anna Belov. How did you initially meet them? Was it your experience on that film that decades later would inspire you to make Gunda?

Kossakovsky: The Belovs is very connected to Gunda, yes. The experience I just told you about with the piglet I had as a child took place in the same village that The Belovs is set. When I was four years old, I spent a few months in that village, so these people were almost like relatives to me. The Belovs was brought about by a long conversation I had with the filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, who, at the time, was very focused on the presence of death in art. He had made a few films about death, and my student film, Losev, was also about death, the death of philosopher Aleksei Losev. Sokurov was insistent that a focus on death is the basis of European art. In a way, it’s true because it begins with the Greeks and Antigone and so forth. But, I told Sokurov, “No, I want to make a film about life, not death.” I then asked myself, “Who would be the family which best represents this complexity of Russian character, of the Russian mentality?” I’ve lived abroad for a long time, and I know that people generally find Russians to be friendly, but Russians can also be unpredictable and aggressive. We always have wars or launch some kind of attack, something in Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia or an attack on a bus in Crimea [the Simferopol incident in 2014]. Why is this the case? But if you go to Russia, families will open the door for you, they will put everything they have on the table for you with an open heart and they will talk to you like you are the closest friend in the world. There is a complexity to the Russian people, and I began to wonder if I had any example of such a family, one that could represent the complexity of the Russian character. That’s when I thought of the Belovs.

When I was a child, Mikhail, the main character in The Belovs, helped me make a small boat out of wood with a sail made out of paper. One day, we laid the boat in the river, and Mikhail told me, “We’ll put the boat here, then it will swim to Saint Petersburg, then to the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, then to somewhere in India or Argentina, somewhere around the world.” This connection, that all people live together and make our home on this planet, stayed with me for a long time. Of course, we’re all a little bit different due to our various delusions, but Russian history is a prominent part of Russian culture, and yet we’re not proud of our delusions. Russians always say, “Oh, we have Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy,” but we also have a very stupid part of our history. We’re proud of our victories but not proud of our defeats. We are not proud of our bad behavior, and we are not proud of when we killed people in many different countries. We always say, “Our history is great,” and in some ways it is, but we also did some very bad things. For example, do you know why Russia is so big? Why the Russians came to Vladivostok? Why the Japanese, who live 100 kilometers away, did not come to Vladivostok? Why was it that the Russians, who lived 10,000 kilometers away in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, decided to come to Vladivostok? There is a paradoxical answer to this, and, in a way, there’s a maternal element apparent in the planet and within our Russian history. For a few hundred years, the main income that made up the Russian government’s state budget was derived from animal fur. Russian hunters were moving East, killing animals and selling their fur to Westerners to make money. That’s why we moved to Vladivostok, to endlessly kill animals and make money. What I’m saying may sound anti-patriotic, but it’s not. We cannot be blindly patriotic. We have to face the truth. We forget that over the course of 100 years, we have tripled the human population, and we’re consuming more and more meat than ever before. We don’t like to think about it, that if the population continues to grow and we kill more and more animals and eat more and more meat and cut down more and more forests, then we will continue to damage the planet. It’s absurd, but unfortunately, it’s all connected.

Filmmaker: There’s also a strong animal presence in The Belovs, where at times it almost feels like a prequel to Gunda’s incorporation of pigs, chickens and cows. Although The Belovs’s connection between humans and animals is quite different (and warmer) than the unseen human presence in Gunda.

Kossakovsky: My films are very connected, and when I look back on them, there are almost animals everywhere, it’s true. They are a fundamental part of my films. For example, in my film Tishe!, there is only one word spoken in the film, and only in the end does the person come out and say that word, “tishe,” which means “silence” in English—then the viewer realizes that that’s just the name of a dog. Years later, when I premiered ¡Vivan las Antípodas! in Venice, somebody said to me, “So, you made another film where someone loves a dog!” I didn’t realize it until then. In The Belovs, Tishe! and ¡Vivan las Antípodas!, there is always a person who loves a dog. I guess it’s a motif in many of my movies.

Anna was quite paradoxical in The Belovs, always in confrontation with her brother but in total harmony with her animals. There’s the scene where she explains to the dog not to hurt a small hedgehog, saying “Don’t touch him. We must bring him back to the forest!” But Anna was not like that with humans! It’s very difficult to find deep and honest and friendly conversation between humans. There’s a photograph in the film of the Belovs where they are much younger, and they look like a beautiful family. Fast-forward 40 years later, and they fight like they hate each other!

Occasionally, there are people who will tell me, “¡Vivan las Antípodas! is great, but The Belovs is better,” or “Tishe! is great, but The Belovs is better” or “Aquarela is amazing, but The Belovs is better.” And I always think to myself, “C’mon, I am trying to do something new here. I cannot just repeat The Belovs again. I mean, I could, but let me try something new.” Eventually, I just said, “OK, if you really like The Belovs, I will do The Belovs again.” In a way, Gunda is a return to that aesthetic and to that relationship of one location and one character (more or less), with my job being to find the right distance between myself and the character, not to distract and to be ready for anything. At the end of The Belovs, Anna is dancing and making circles, and at the conclusion of Gunda, the pig is running in circles, too. At the end of The Belovs, Anna is running and dancing, then she leaves the room and closes the door. At the end of Gunda, Gunda eventually goes back into her barn. It just happened on its own, but it feels like a miracle, right? There is some weird connection throughout my whole body of work.

Filmmaker: I believe you chose your cinematographer, Egil Håskjold Larsen, because of his previous work as a Steadicam operator. Is that correct?

Kossakovsky: Yes, and choosing the right cameraman was extremely difficult. Egil really knew the right distance between camera and subject. If you step back a bit with the camera, you’re already losing content, but if you get a tiny bit closer, you risk disturbing the environment of the person or animal you’re filming. That’s why Egil and I had to reinvent the Steadicam in a way, as it’s almost impossible to film as low to the ground as we did. To prepare for how to shoot with a Steadicam, I spent a few months practicing with a big basket filled with water. I would walk with it on my shoulder, making sure that the water didn’t spill out. We made some innovations in order to be very low to the ground, almost at the eye level of the chickens we have in the film. For example, do you remember the second-to-last shot in the segment with the chicken, when she is staring at the camera and looking right at us?

Filmmaker: Yes.

Kossakovsky: We wanted the camera to be very, very low and to use a special lens so that everything else [in the frame] is blurred, and the tree branches above the chicken would begin to resemble the wide tail of a peacock. So, in order to achieve it, we had to adjust and tilt the Steadicam in a specific way.

Filmmaker: You began production on Gunda while you were still working on your previous film, Aquarela, is that correct?

Kossakovsky: We actually started both at the same time.

Filmmaker: Aquarela was shot at 96 frames-per-second. But Gunda

Kossakovsky:Gunda was classic black and white at 24 frames-per-second. However, I plan on shooting at 96 frames-per-second for my next film. For me, there is no way back. I know it will take time for people to understand this, but for me there is no way back. The future [of filmmaking] is with a fast frame rate.

Filmmaker: Why Gunda at 24 frames-per-second, then?

Kossakovsky: It had to look like classic cinema, slow and very small. I didn’t want to have a stylistic revolution, as the subject was revolutionary enough. I wanted a slow tempo and long, long takes. The first take in the film is longer than five minutes, and the final take is longer than 15. It’s quite long. So, that’s why. But generally, if you ask me about 96, there’s no question there. I feel the same about Dolby Atmos sound. I’m surprised that people don’t get it yet. Without it, you’re losing so much.

Of course, when you’re shooting on 35mm, 24 frames-per-second is a huge amount of film. A camera needs to be quite large to even shoot 10 minutes of film, not to mention the costs that come with developing and printing the film. It can also be very noisy. But when you’re shooting digitally, it doesn’t make sense to shoot 24 frames-per-second. No matter how many frames you’re shooting, the camera isn’t making any noise. Shoot a thousand frames-per-second if you wish—OK, I admit that you shouldn’t shoot at one thousand frames-per-second because the human eye will not be able to distinguish that. But 96 is so exact.

I had a very long preparation and testing period where I shot something at 24 frames and also at 48, 96, 120 [and so on]. My first attempt was at 96, and it was obvious that that was the best one. I’m sure people will understand eventually, as soon as big cameramen like Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] or Hoyte van Hoytema or Roger Deakins understand it, too. When they watch Aquarela, they will go to 96 frames, I’m sure.

Filmmaker: You spoke earlier about the distance between your camera and the protagonists in your films. Could you discuss that further with regards to Gunda?

Kossakovsky: Camera positioning is the most important thing for me, as that too forms a kind of relationship with the viewer. If you want to be in a relationship with someone, you need to know the proper steps to take, right? You can’t just immediately run up to the person and grab and hug and kiss them. You need to give the person space. You need the person to make their own decisions before you come closer. You need the person to agree with you, to allow you to come closer. That is the role of the camera and where you place it. The camera must come as close as possible without disturbing the viewer’s private environment. However, by this point, the camera cannot move further back. Do not lose the contact you’ve now established.

I like that people think that what I did in Gunda is the opposite of what I normally do. I usually pull in from the total shot, slowly, slowly coming to the close-up of the subject. But in Gunda, I did something different, and people noticed that, and that’s important to me. I found the position of my camera in a way that Gunda herself came to me rather than I coming to her with the camera. At the end of the film, when her babies are taken away, Gunda was frantically running and running, and I did not touch her. I was far away from her, using quite a long lens to pick up her emotions. Then, she realized that there was no one else to talk to, so she decided to come to me. Gunda looked to the camera as if to ask, “What are you doing to me? Why did you take my kids? Why? Why are you doing this?”

Evolution created us and taught us to use our eyes. This, too, is the basis of cinema. In my opinion, cinema is the art closest to nature. If you look at any animal or person (we are all animals) passing you on the street, with one look you will know if the person is friendly or dangerous. Is it someone you have to be careful around? We are so fast in our understanding of people that with one look we know if someone might possibly be our eventual lover. Nature taught us to look, to look properly. And this is why I made Gunda without voiceover. I wanted to remind everyone that we are animals in a way. We are people, but we are animals. Nature and evolution taught us to look and to understand, to feel first and understand second. This is why I believe cinema is very close to nature. Cinema gives you feelings first and uses your brain second.

Most films will use voiceover in documentaries, which is ridiculous. Why use voiceover? It’s because they don’t want you to see something, they want you to learn something. That filmmaker wants to teach you something, and I think that’s wrong, as cinema should not teach you anything. Cinema should show you something you’ve never seen before, or you didn’t want to see, or are not able to see or you decided not to see. Cinema must build by showing you something. It can provide emotions you’ve never had before. This is also why I made Gunda without music, without any words and without any humans, to remind you that cinema was born as a direct connection between the viewer and the subject. Later on, you can make stories, but our original mission is to see.

Filmmaker: Did you have to build a barn-like set to house Gunda and her children? I believe the camera was on the inside of the barn, while you and your filmmaking team were on the outside (to not interfere with or disturb Gunda’s living arrangements). Did that have to be constructed in such a way that you would not disrupt their daily activities?

Kossakovsky: Yes, exactly. When I found Gunda, she was like Meryl Streep in how communicative she was. She was looking at me and communicating speech via her eyes. I then walked over to her “house,” to her barn, to see where she stayed. Later on, I went home, and Egil and I drew up a design for a similar barn, but one that would accommodate our lens being inside and with the ability to move 360 degrees. We never wanted to disturb Gunda and her piglets, but we needed to be able to move the lens around them in this new barn.

Our producer, Anita Rehoff Larsen, actually didn’t have money in the first place [to do this], but she took a risk, which for Europeans is unusual. It’s Americans and their way of production where producers take a risk. In Europe, it’s not really like this. In Europe, producers are not taking risks until they have money in the bank account. But Anita took this project very personally and went out and found people who built this barn for us.

By the time we filmed the birth sequence [at the beginning of the film], it was clear that we were making a good movie and would need some additional money. The Norwegian Film Institute was really helpful. I am not Norwegian, but Anita is. This brings me to another important point: I am a Russian filmmaker who cannot find financing for my movies in Russia at the present moment, not with such a regime and current political situation. I will never find money in Russia to help finance my movies. It’s the European countries like Germany, Norway, France, Holland, Denmark, England, etc., that give me money to make my films. What we created with Gunda is unique, and it was made even better because Norwegians were brave enough to give me money to go and make this strange movie. Then, an American producer, Joslyn Barnes, came on to help me. On top of that, the actor Joaquin Phoenix came on to help me, then on the top of that the distribution company NEON came on to help me. It’s unbelievable!

Some people give different numbers, but after counting more precisely, I believe that people are producing between 50,000 and 60,000 films a year. You want to get some spotlight on your film, right? How do we make each one more visible to the public? If filmmaking is a sport, the main county for this sport is the United States of America. The European mentality unfortunately thinks this way. If your film doesn’t win or even get nominated for an Oscar or if your film is not screened in U.S. cinemas, there is almost no chance you’re going to be screened in Europe. OK, maybe in Europe you have a 50 percent chance, but in Russia you have almost a zero percent chance (unless you have huge support from public TV or Channel One). If your film is successful in the U.S., then Europeans say, “Oh?” This is not accidental. European distributors are waiting and wishing for American distribution because they want to make noise and have a hundred films in U.S. cinemas. That means that they are good movies, right? This is how it works now.

Filmmaker: And with the pandemic still in progress, many audiences will experience Gunda through virtual screening platforms online. Given that the motion picture image is so vital and important to your work, are you OK with people screening the film outside a theater space?

Kossakovsky: You know, back when I was making ¡Vivan las Antípodas!, I was in New Zealand and saw a whale lying still on a beach. I didn’t know if he had committed suicide or was injured by a big ship or whatever. He was dying right there on the beach. Suddenly, I noticed a group of people stop to look at him. I have a shot in my film of two people in particular, who didn’t know each other, beginning to hug one another. They had both experienced something unique together. This huge, beautiful animal died in front of their eyes, and they just couldn’t help themselves. They happened to meet accidentally on the beach, and they had a chance to experience something together. I think this is similar to people being in a room together and experiencing a film in real time, experiencing emotions they never knew they had. I do hope it will stay with us after the pandemic subsides. I hope that cinema will stay with us and that theaters will still exist. There used to be a time when people all got together for church services, and we still need to feel something together. Maybe, we need to cry because something is tragic or is beautiful, and you need the emotional support of others to accept it, to face it, to embrace it.

I guess it’s a question of empathy. Gunda is a call for empathy. Empathy is individualistic, but it can be great when it’s a collective empathy. When it comes to other animals, we need to share this planet with them in fair agreement. We must give them the space to be free, give them rights to be free and to live the lives they want to live. Humans are dominating everything and without reason. This is why I still believe in cinema. I don’t want to say I am against streaming platforms.

There is one more element here. I came to cinema because I had experienced movies on the big screen in a big theater. That’s when I knew that this would be my life and that I would become a filmmaker. If I would have experienced cinema on a TV, I probably would never have noticed or paid much attention to it. But when I saw films like Koyaanisqatsi and 8 ½ on the big screen, I knew that this would be my life, that I belong to this. If you see a film on a small monitor, it will probably not work for you. That is the big difference. I still believe in this collective experience.

Throughout the Q&As we had for the screenings [before the pandemic shutdown], young kids in the audience would always walk up to the microphone and ask, “Why did no one tell me that the food we eat was once alive?” And I responded, “It’s up to your family to tell you. Maybe it’s easier for them not to think about it and it’s easier for you to eat the food if you don’t think about it, either.” This is a paradox, though, as kids are known to play with animals, right? And if they cannot play with real animals, then kids will play with toy animals, whether that’s a plastic dolphin or a plastic elephant or whatever else. Kids play with so many toys that resemble real animals, yet they cannot connect it to the food [they eat]. Most families have a dog or a cat that they love and play with. They know their pet is smart, sensitive, loving and that it understands them. However, these families cannot make the connection between their pets and the animals they eat. It’s just easier not to. This is why cinema is great because cinema, without words, can show you what you don’t want to see. I’m getting 50 or 60 emails a day from people, particularly of the younger generation, telling me that they cannot eat meat anymore. It’s amazing!

I was always skeptical about cinema’s ability to make a change in someone’s life. I was always saying, “No, no, no, that is not the filmmaker’s job. We are not the United Nations!” But in fact, you don’t need the United Nations to tell you how to change. If you open your heart and are honest with yourself, you know that we cannot kill animals, or rather, we should not. We have to change that.

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