Andrea Arnold’s new film, Cow, is startlingly simple: it is an empathetic and moving portrayal of the dairy cow. Filmed over the course of four years, Cow follows the day-to-day life of a cow called Luma, in a series of close up shots that create a real sense of intimacy with the protagonist. Through the camera lens, we join Luma as she gives birth, is milked, grazes, and so forth. Hearing about it, the film sounds a little dull and slow-moving, but in reality, it creates a tender, compelling portrait of an animal rarely given such an angle. In an interview with the Guardian, Arnold said she filmed Cow because “I wanted to show a non-human consciousness. I was intrigued as to whether we would be able to see her consciousness if we followed her long enough.” Watching Luma interact with the world around her, at times is painful or equally sweet, it is impossible to doubt the consciousness of animals other than ourselves.
In some ways the film was less provocative than I had expected. Reading reviews of it which claimed that viewers would ‘never drink dairy milk again’ after watching it, I expected a constant bombardment of heart-wrenching shots and painful-to-watch footage. Growing up, myself and many friends around me turned vegetarian after watching videos like PETA’s ‘Meet Your Meat’, or Joaquin Phoenix’s heartbreaking ‘Earthlings’, both of which documented the brutal treatment of factory farmed animals. Cow is distinctly different in this respect; it is filmed on a relatively small, typical British farm, where the farmers don’t abuse their animals in the same way as battery-farms might. There is a level of respect for their cows, who in the summer months are allowed to roam green pastures to graze, and who are even given names (like Luma) in addition to their branded backsides.
Regardless of this, though, these cows do not live hugely pleasant lives. The majority of their time is still spent indoors, in mechanical environments where they are subjected to daily milking by machines, are separated from their calves a matter of hours after giving birth, and are killed once their milk production begins to decline. Cow is not an exposé of the dairy industry; it does not show the worst and most sickening aspects of it in an attempt to force viewers from their dairy milk cereal bowls or cheese sandwiches. Instead, without making grand statements, or even any spoken statements at all, it lets us make up our own minds.
The film cannot be disputed or argued against in the same way as facts listed in Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy have been. Instead, it is a simple display of the truth, and nothing more. Instead of preaching veganism, Cow chooses to empathise with these beautiful animals in a way which none of the PETA videos ever could. Luma is shown as a truly sentient being, a loving mother cleaning her newborn calf, a curious animal sniffing the night air and stargazing. Perhaps it is for this reason that it resonated with me in a way which the other documentaries couldn’t; while it’s essential to be aware and against the abuse and maltreatment that cows and other farmed animals suffer, for anything to really change we must equally be ready to consider them as beings not all that different from us or our pets: as capable of love, pain, and joy, which is exactly what this film shows us.
Cow is, in essence, a bittersweet film. It is romantic and touching while also at times painful and bleak in its documenting of the two sides of the diary industry: the mechanical, cold environments and routines Luma is subjected to, and her own calm, quiet compliance. Watching it would give anyone a new, vastly more empathetic view on these gentle giants. Available on MUBI, I would absolutely give this film a watch if you haven’t already. Besides, isn’t it time to switch to oat milk?
Cow is available on MUBI.
Image Courtesy of Derrick Story, Via Flickr
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