Category Archives: Documentary

Lambs to the Slaughter: Viktor Kossakovskiy’s Gunda

This review contains mild spoilers.

Animals in cinema fall under three categories. First, we have the merely decorative ones — the cute pets that have sometimes grace the screen, sometimes with a tiny part to play. Then we have the more symbolic, or even heroic, in which an animal — usually a dog, or a horse — becomes an emblem for a larger scope if you go for greatness, or the stuffed birds in Psycho which portent not to a greater danger just about to happen, but segue into another film titled The Birds. We could also include, as a third category, the anthropomorphic creatures that since the dawn of animation — drawn and now, computerized — have told their own stories, which dimly reflect the human experience.

What Gunda offers is something completely different, Zoning in ever so slowly to the barn where she lives, we don’t get to see her proper until we are about five or so minutes of an extremely slow zoom-in. Lying on the ground, she seems to be in some pain. We soon realize why. She’s currently in the end phases of giving birth to a dozen little piglets who are already squirming about trying to find her milk-engorged teats to begin feeding. Meanwhile, she lies on the ground, accepting, not really moving, barely making any noise at all. If anything, the only noises come from the piglets themselves, and while at first, they seem to be akin to the cries of newborn babies, later on, they will morph into the cries of hunger, play, and something completely unthinkable.

Gunda remains close to its protagonist, the camera practically right next to her and her piglets as they all move as one body throughout the confines of the barn and then venture out into the farm. Along the way, the omnipresent camera, while tracking her movements, also tracks that of a trio of chickens recently let out of a coop, and focuses on one who is missing a leg. Then the camera tracks Gunda who has approached what seems to be a cow farm. One majestic shot gives these animals a sense of grandiosity only afforded to scenes of horses during a stampede. To see a group of cows emerge and tear through the fields into the woods, sometimes skipping, as their bells clang, is truly an epic experience.

But then, Kossalovskiy’s camera does what little movies do: focus on not just the animal in question but on their faces. While it is possible that some people may wonder what is the purpose for this, it gave me a sense of identification if you will. Watching an animal who seems to be alert, watching me, as it continues to move about, is a bit unsettling, particularly when you realize later where Gunda is headed, and how complicit you are in its own thread.

It slowly becomes apparent that because Gunda transpires within the confines of a farm that these animals, as cute as they are, are completely under the control of their unseen humans. This becomes clear when Gunda herself while venturing a bit too far from her home, comes across an electric fence, We don’t see it; she doesn’t, either, and her squeal of surprise and pain is piercing.

The reality of these animals couldn’t be more present when focusing on the piglets, a thing which Kossalovskiy’s camera does, and often. At first, the suspense hinges on their mother’s enormous body. The babies are so small, so fragile, that one slight movement from her could mean the difference between life and death. Every time the camera, after cavorting with the chickens and cows, returns to Gunda and her babies, they seem to have grown. First, it looks like a week, then months. Suddenly, they have what seem to be personalities all their own. A scene in which two piglets taste the rain with their mouths is something out of magic. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

Of course, something indescribably awful cracks the serenity of the entire montage, and then I feel the rug being pulled from under my feet. All this time, a false sense of security has been planted within the meandering narrative. The camera, which has stayed so close to both Gunda but especially her little piglets, continues to do just that, now only delivering a growing sense of shock that is more effective from what we never see but hear. Those squeals from the moment of the piglets’ birth now come with terror, while Gunda can only run — yes, run — after the large tractor that has come. It is a gut-wrenching scene and stands right up there with the scene in Bambi.

This is a deceptive documentary. It arrives enfolded in the black and white beauty of pastoral images, slowly draws you into what seems to be the life of a pig, only to disclose the ugly magician at the center. You will not see anything else like it. I don’t think it will change the world, but at least, it has changed me.

A Harrowing Depiction of Life Among the Ruins: Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno

Every so often a movie comes around that really messes you up. The last time I saw a documentary that kept me up at night was 2013’s The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s portrayal of the horrors committed on a populace in the name of ethnic cleansing left me so shaken I didn’t know what to do. Yes, a movie can do this to you.

Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Broulliard (Night and Fog) managed to open a glimpse into the abyss in his portrayal of Nazi atrocities in barely 30 minutes of running time. Now, Gianfranco Rosi, whose work should be commended for his bravery, presents Notturno. His documentary posits itself as an observer, much in the way of the works of Frederick Wiseman. We never get interviews; we only observe its subjects, some broken, some jailed, some haunted, some hopeful, as they move about through life while the distant sounds of armed conflict pepper the soundtrack.

Threads emerge. Women, entering the prison where their sons were tortured and killed by ISIS. One mother’s pain is so palpable: she mourns the loss of her son, and even attempts, it seems, to absorb her son’s final moments before an untimely death while wondering, “Where was God in all this?” Another boy, Fawaz, narrates to his teacher the atrocities committed by ISIS, his drawing an abstract composition of death and horror. As the camera continues to roll his speech will turn into a stutter as he attempts to vomit forth all that he has witnessed. Another thread depicts a fisherman hunting for food at night while the oil fields burn, lighting up the night as though it were sunset. Yet another shows the Peshmerga female soldiers as they go throughout their days and nights, guarding the fort, conducting night surveillance, or simply watching violent videos on their iPads while others drink tea. Another sequence, still, depicts a mother having to listen to frantic messages left by her daughter who has been captured by ISIS. Most notably, a teen imparts lessons to hunters, but one scene left me wondering if there was something vaguely sexual about the exchange.

One interesting sequence lasts only about five minutes. In it, we see what seems to be ISIS prisoners, all dressed in orange, moving about their cell yard. It is disconcerting, to say the least, knowing the horrors they have inflicted, and how now they’ve been reduced to mere orange figures moving in a manner not un-similar to the laborers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), only to be clumped together into one giant cell in which barely any light filters through.

This is an extremely harrowing movie that I had to view in portions because at times it was a bit much to take in one sitting. Mind you, Notturno is a little over 90 minutes long in length not counting credits. It’s just that to see a nation attempting to live in a weird sense of bruised normalcy under an unforgiving sky while nursing so many scars, so much death and destruction left by a horrendous militant group, was almost a litmus test in endurance. My only complaint with the movie is that while Fawaz’s (and other children’s) stories were necessary to be told, in the long sequence where he is clearly stuttering and spitting his words out as his story becomes more and more frenzied, why did no one break the fourth wall and come to comfort him? It seemed a bit too exploitative.

Notturno won’t be for everyone’s taste and should be approached with a strong stomach and a sense of detachment in order to process it all. It is available on most streaming platforms.

Grade: A–

Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021: Little Girl (Petite Fille)

The Lincoln Center returns with a virtual-only version of its Rendezvous with French Cinema film festival. Now in its 26th year, the film festival shows no sign of slowing down and manages to continually reinvent itself rather than present the same tired Catherine Deneuve/Isabelle Huppert movies that frankly, are just fillers and manage to say nothing new about the language of film. I’ve nothing against either one — I have always admired Huppert and know her to be the better actress — but Deneuve has mostly coasted off of her golden locks and vacuous stares that were the rage in the 60s at the height of her fame. Now she’s been whittled down to spewing out at least a film or three out for the sake of repetitive acting working. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes, it’s like chomping down on some fluff — it’s super-sugary but has no substance. The closest thing she has come to actually deliver a true performance was in last year’s The Truth, which was the film to open the 25th edition of RWFC, and which received a belated release thanks to the pandemic.

This year, if there is a movie to watch it is Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (Petite Fille). If I’m not wrong, this is the first documentary to open at the French film festival. Lifshitz’s movie focuses on a special character. His subject, the mononymous Sasha, is seven years old, and while she may have been born a boy, she clearly — and openly — affirms herself as a girl. Scratch that — she is a girl, plain and simple. Her mother Karine, while in therapy early on, expresses support that is so open-hearted, so emotional and complete, that it threatens to overshadow Sasha’s own story. Karine partly blames herself for Sasha, a situation that any parent of a gay or transgender child might experience. Wanting a girl so badly, she wonders if perhaps her own intensity of desire may have caused Sasha to come into the world announcing her femininity to French society, which plays a large part of the doc, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Little Girl establishes that Sasha has nothing to fear at home. She is unequivocally supported by her father and two older siblings who practically stand up for her at any chance. [She has a younger brother but he is too young to truly understand the drama unfolding before his eyes and mostly gets relegated to being a toddler.]

The conflict of the documentary arises — or has been brewing, even before the tape has begun to roll — in the outside world. Karine has had to contend with a school system that is shockingly intolerant towards trans rights and who will not accept her as a girl. Yet, this is all Sasha wants, and her tiny face contorts into a frown that suddenly explodes with tears at a therapy session with renowned child psychologist Anne Bargiacchi. It is all that one needs to see to realize the conflicts that Sasha has been put through just because her identity doesn’t line up with her physical genitalia. Place that side-by-side to an earlier scene when Karine informs her therapist that the sheer happiness Sasha displayed when wearing her first dress was incomparable. As a viewer, as someone who is extremely sensitive to the delicate psyche of a child, I couldn’t but be furious with a system based on archaic beliefs. It seems to almost parallel the ones transgender people face here in the US — particularly in more conservative parts of the country.

Karine eventually starts to win her battle against the school, but scars and wounds remain. Sasha’s dance teacher forbids her to wear girl’s clothes simply because “in her country such a thing is illegal.” Karine fears, and is justified in feeling so, that Sasha will encounter hatred in this world and worries she may not be around to protect her when that time comes. In the middle of it, we get the more silent shots which are worth every second of their presence in the film. Sasha, simply existing, dancing to her own rhythm, running on the beach in a peach bathing suit, combing her hair which gets longer during the movie — the only indication of the passing of time. These are the snippets that matter, because they present a little girl completely at bliss in her own body and self. Little Girl, without a doubt, is one of the most delicate, sensitive documentaries to emerge in a long time and I hope that it gets the exposure it should here in the US once it hits theaters (and virtual platforms). We could all learn from Karine, but especially, from Sasha.

Little Girl will have its premiere as one of the seven movies included in the Seattle International Film Festival, Main Selection, on April 8. It will arrive later at theaters and virtual cinema. Date of release TBA.

Grade: A