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Gunda: A pig’s life

Posted on Jun 1, 2021

Gunda is an astonishing documentary, employing careful filmmaking techniques to offer an intimate look at the lives of a sow and her piglets

Words Chelsea Fearnley / pictures Altitude

In many ways, Gunda is a remarkably simple 93-minute documentary. It follows the life of the eponymous pig, her newborn piglets and their farmyard companions. However, while director Victor Kossakovsky and DOP Egil Håskjold Larsen only shot six hours of footage, a tremendous amount of care went into capturing the personality and intellect of the animals. For example, the film’s black & white grading encourages viewers to rethink their perception of pigs.

Larsen explains: “Without any colour, that postcard image of the pink pig, green grass and blue sky disappeared and brought about a new character – one that didn’t have so many connotations. It takes away the sensation that Gunda is anything less than an individual.”

The decision to shoot Gunda in black & white was made very early on in prep, while Larsen was testing camera angles on his Leica M Monochrom. “I wasn’t trying to see if we should convey it in this style,” he says. “But when we looked at the digital stills, we noticed details that weren’t visible in the colour photographs. We hadn’t noticed Gunda’s eyelids or the different textures of her skin, as we were too concerned with looking at colour repetition.

“It was a huge decision, because every photographer knows the best photos have an underlying sense of purpose – a hint the images were deliberately captured in a particular way. Therefore, we made sure to compose the shots in black & white by tuning the monitors to reflect this.”

DOP Egil Håskjold Larsen stands between his camera and the eponymous pig on the location of Gunda
Larsen used a Panther dolly to hoist the camera up and down

Art, not journalism

Gunda is a passion project, and one which stemmed from Kossakovsky’s own curiosity and sympathy towards animals – and pigs in particular.

Larsen explains: “He spent most of his childhood in the countryside and away from people, so his best friend at the time was a piglet. Then, one Christmas, that piglet became the family’s dinner and it devastated Victor, who became Russia’s first vegetarian – or so he says!”

But the film wasn’t borne out of activism. There’s no music, on-screen text or Attenborough-esque narration telling you how to live your life. It’s just an intimate window into the lives of animals.

“His approach isn’t to lecture, but to visually represent something using the tools of cinema. He’s forcing the viewer to see things from a different perspective, while still enabling them to interpret it in their own way. For me, that’s what got me into making documentaries,” says Larsen.

“However, the genre has suffered in recent years. It’s become less about the art and visual representation of the world we live in, and more about the journalism. It’s an important and huge topic, but is difficult to speak about in specific terms. Either we need to call what we’re creating by a different name, or we need to normalise documentaries that are more than just rhetoric.”

Mother pig, Gunda, walks with her piglets
Gunda’s personality as a caring mother is developed throughout the documentary

Gunda doesn’t have a happy ending, but it leaves you with an important connection to the animals, just as you would experience after watching a documentary about human beings.

“After getting to know these characters, I understood they each had a personality, and a special way of treating each other. Gunda is a really caring and beautiful mother. If you manage to see some of that in the film, you realise how important it is to respect these animals – and also how insane it is that we do whatever we want to them, just because it’s beneficial to us as a species,” says Larsen.

Tactile camera

Kossakovsky found Gunda on a Norwegian farm not far from Oslo, on the first day of ‘casting’. Once she was in place, the crew constructed a replica of her enclosure, which allowed them to shoot from a distance to gain her respect – and that of her (soon to be born) piglets.

Larsen explains: “We laid dolly track around her barn, which had modulated walls, so we could carefully track and crane the Arri Alexa Mini LF [paired with an Angénieux Optimo Style 25-250] from the outside looking in. It was a huge physical job, because we were always digging dolly track into the ground, so the camera was at the right height for the animals.”

Mother pig, Gunda, looks into the camera during the filming of the documentary of the same name

This more observational approach to filming the pigs at a distance was crucial, developing their characters throughout the documentary. As the pigs became accustomed to the crew’s presence, they were filmed at a closer range, reflecting the viewer’s growing familiarity with them.

“They became more comfortable with us walking among them, so most of the second half of the film was done on a Steadicam, using either a 14mm or 32mm Arri Master Prime lens. The camera equipment took quite a beating here, but it didn’t matter. The most important aspect of creating this film was the distance and closeness we were able to develop.”

The movie opens with Gunda lounging on a bed of hay, her body inside the enclosure and her head framed in the doorway. The shot is held long enough for you to admire the details and compositional symmetry, before a piglet the size of Gunda’s ear scrambles over her head and on to the hay.

“We worked so hard to maintain the shots as long as possible,” says Larsen. “The ending is almost 14 minutes long, which is quite rare for a documentary. But it’s also interesting, because it immerses the viewer in that environment. The task is to ensure the footage is mesmerising, using dynamic camera movements to enhance the feeling that you, as a viewer, are spending time on the farm.”

After 93 minutes in pig heaven, we can confirm that Larsen and his team passed with flying colours.

Watch Gunda in UK cinemas on 11 June.

On location of Gunda, two piglets collect falling rain on their snouts

Originally featured in the May 2021 issue of Definition magazine.

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