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“Luma Was a Feisty Cow”: Andrea Arnold on Cow

Luma in Cow (courtesy of IFC Films)

“We call them dumb animals, and they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.” – Anna Sewell, 1877

Andrea Arnold, director of Fish Tank and American Honey, chronicles the travails of dairy cows in her first documentary feature. Upon giving birth—shown in viscous detail in the film’s opening scene—Luma and her calf are immediately separated. For 98 minutes, the camera, low to the ground, scuttles closely after them, as they’re herded from pen to pen, fed, milked, dehorned and even bred to establish the intimate, diurnal rhythm of their lives. Humans remain at the edges of this picture, their voices muffled, while mud and dirt, earth and sky, are on full view. Erring on the side of objectivity, Arnold avoids both exaggerating the intrinsic bleakness ascribed to commodities and manufacturing a rustic idyll for urban dwellers. From plainspoken cinematic language emerges an indelible and often moving portrait of an animal stripped to its barest components. IFC Films releases Cow Friday April 8 in select theaters and on VOD.

Filmmaker: What does the bovine casting process look like? 

Arnold: We had to find a farm that was going to allow us to film, which was a bit of a long journey. Then I wanted to try and find a cow that would be quite distinct—and we were [further] limited, because we wanted to find a cow that was pregnant, since I wanted to start with the birth. They told me Luma was a feisty cow. I wasn’t sure if you would be able to see the individual character of the cow, so the fact that she was feisty and had this distinct white head and the eyeliner look, was good. As soon as I saw her, I thought she was beautiful and stood out. It’s not so much different from filming people. 

Filmmaker: I thought she was pretty distinct and could identify her immediately.

Arnold: The thing is, now I realize that if I picked any cow, their individuality would have stood out because we focused on them so intently—even though it was a good move to pick a cow with a more distinct head. 

Filmmaker: You mentioned you wanted to start with the birth.  Did you always know that her fate would be sealed and that would constitute the end of the film? Was there a script?

Arnold: There was no script. From the beginning, I always wanted to show the consciousness of their being alive. For some reason, I wanted to start with eyes open and end with eyes closed—I guess that meant life to death. At the beginning I thought I was going to do a whole cow’s life, but that could be 13, 14 years, and nobody wanted me to go on filming for that long. So, I had to rethink it: what if I film the mother and baby and get the life cycle of the dairy cow? I can go from birth to death, then to birth again. I thought I’d film the calf until her first baby, because that’s their job really—making babies. 

Filmmaker: How long did you film for? Did you board at the farm?

Arnold: We filmed over four years. I didn’t stay at the farm, but it’s not far from London where I live, so we were able to travel very easily when things happened.

Filmmaker: You avoid overt humanization of Luma, but there are suggestions of how Luma feels, like when she moos and the camera cuts at certain times. Can you talk about finding a balance between that distance and closeness?

Arnold: There’s no way we can get inside a cow’s head—we don’t even know what it’s like to be another human being.  We have some things in common as people, but you don’t know their direct experience or what makes them tick. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. So, I felt very clear that I didn’t want to humanize her—my idea was just to just watch her in her environment and her reaction to things. We panned sometimes when she was looking at something, so you’ll see the camera do that. Sometimes those things turned into cuts, but they were still focused on where she was looking. Then you can make up your own mind about what she might be worrying about or looking forward to. It’s about giving you information so you can imagine, not me telling you. 

Filmmaker: There are a lot of cow-level shots. I can’t imagine it was easy for the DP. 

Arnold: Magda [Kowalczyk] is basically an amazing woman. When we were looking for a cinematographer, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy job and they had to have a way of looking at the animals. We first met up with a lot of cinematographers in a supermarket cafe next to a city farm and asked if they wouldn’t mind going to film the animals in the farm so we could see their relationship with the animals.

Magda was in Poland, so she sent me footage of cows on a farm nearby instead and it was fantastic. She just stayed on the cows’ heads. We’ve gotten used to fast cutting in this universe, and there’s something lovely about not cutting sometimes. At one point somebody walked in the door and all the cows looked that way, and I was so wrapped up that I was also like, “who’s come in? Is it the farmer?” I realized she got me thinking about what they were thinking. I don’t think she was necessarily thinking like a cow, but she was so used to being amongst them. Sometimes I’d see her in the middle of all the cows climbing on things. I don’t think she thought the cows would hurt her, so she was comfortable from the beginning. Not everyone would’ve been like that. 

I also have a thing in my drama films where I follow one subject, so I very much wanted to do that. That sometimes means not filming in a traditional way or doing traditional coverage—being bold and sticking with things that don’t tell the whole story, but a particular part of the story. 

Filmmaker: It sounds like Magda had a really innate connection with them.

Arnold: She really did. When we were looking at first I was like, “Maybe we don’t need a DP. I don’t want something so considered or such careful shots.” We even tried someone who just loved cows and wasn’t a camera person. We thought a cow lover would be the answer to finding an intimate thing. But, this cow lover didn’t really know how to use a camera. Magda was a great mix of loving cows and knowing how to use the camera. She’s an empathetic person and kindly, and those qualities translate into her work. I wanted Luma to be center stage, and for us to be focusing on her, not fancy shots.

Filmmaker: Because of that, Cow has an everydayness to it, yet there is profundity. 

Arnold: I was about to say, I think I’m a realist—but I don’t think I am, now that I think about it. I feel very aware of the complexity of life and that it isn’t just sweet. It’s challenging, but amazing, and harsh on some level. The cows are working incredibly hard, but there is joy there, too. You can see some of it when they go out in the field. Isn’t that how it is for all of us? I think I always try to have joy and slightly more brutal realities in my films, and not shy away from the tough things. 

Filmmaker: It could just have been my speakers, but the music seemed to be diegetic. Did you choose these songs, like Billie Eilish’s “Lovely” or Angel Olsen’s “Unfucktheworld,” personally? Music plays an important role in your previous films.

Arnold: The cowshed played pop radio, so it was there. I found that very poignant, because pop music is about longing and desire and love:  “I miss you,” “where are you,” “you’ve left me,” all those kinds of lyrics. Of course, because the cows and calves are getting separated all the time, you feel that sense of longing in the cowshed. I thought that music was a gift really, because it captures the same feeling, so I took it from there.  I couldn’t always just use the music that was there, since I [couldn’t] clear it, so I chose in the vein of what was already there. 

Filmmaker: Did any personal or political views on animal welfare, eating meat, play into making the film?

Arnold: I’ve had this film with me for a really long time. I think some of my feelings and thoughts about these things have changed a bit, but I try to keep myself out of it. I feel like the film is better if I just present it as a sort of invitation or engagement. I want to show you her, and for people to have their own relationship with it. Obviously I’ve directed the camera and your consciousness towards certain things. I tried really hard to make something that’s opening the doors, because we’re quite disconnected from farming and how we get our food. I do feel that it’s a real shame that we’re so disconnected from nature.

Filmmaker: You’ve said you grew up in an urban area that still had pockets of really rural wildlife, which I have not really experienced so much here in New York.

Arnold: I had this very young mom and dad who weren’t really paying attention, so I was just out. They weren’t like “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” so I was very free. I think we all have a natural instinct to want to be close to nature, and we get a lot out of it. I’ve been reading this book called The Spell of the Sensuous, about how we’re getting more disconnected from the natural world. We’re living in this digital world we can’t smell or touch. It’s 2D; you can hear it, but you can’t experience or feel it on your skin. The book talks about what it is to be human: you need to go out and experience sensual things, and see yourself in relation to other creatures.

When I was young I was roaming, fighting with local boys, eating wild strawberries, scrabbling down chalk pits, getting scratched and bruised, picking up mice. It was an instinctive way of being in nature, and left to our own devices we want that connection. When I see a dog in the park, the kids want to play with the dog and the parents are like, “Don’t touch it!” We all get disconnected from these living things that we come across. Whenever life’s been difficult, I always feel better if I can go sit under a tree or go for a walk. It restores me and I feel my place again. I’ve always had that, I think, from that freedom as a kid. You can see it in my films. I find ways of using the things around me to communicate, even just a little bug on a leaf.   

Filmmaker: I was reminded of the pony in Fish Tank.

Arnold: Yes! When I was writing, the horse kept appearing to me, and I kept thinking, “This is too dramatic.” My head is going “No, don’t do that,” but every time I wrote, the horse came up, so I left it in. Then when we were editing, I kept dreaming about the horse—that someone gave it to me, that I looked after it, and I had four days to live with it. I Googled “psychology of horses” and Freud saw the horse as representing sexuality and the wild side of the father. And I thought “Wow, that’s just spooky.” Sometimes you have a way of interpreting the world when you’re writing, and my way is, horses and dogs and ladybirds come in, and they all have their meaning—at least to me they do.

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