Cow is a documentary film made by Andrea Arnold which was released in the middle of January. At 95 minutes it’s not long by any means but it’s unlike any documentary I’ve ever watched and it’s certainly a complete change of direction for Arnold, who’s best known for contemporary social dramas like Red Road, American Honey and Fishtank. Filmed over a period of 4 years, Arnold condensed the footage she shot into a very accessible story which follows the life of Luma, a dairy cow living on a farm somewhere in England. It also manages to raise some thought-provoking questions about the future of food, farming and lifestyles in the UK.
Show, don’t tell
Much of the film is spent recording the routine of Luma’s life inside the cowsheds or the milking parlour, a claustrophobic world of straw, slurry, feeding, sleeping, mating, giving birth and milking. It opens with her calving. There are some touching moments as she cleans the calf and bonds with it. You get a definite sense that this upsets them both when, later, the calf is removed. There is a considerable amount of close up photography, which not only reveals details of the conditions in which cows are kept but, because a lot of it takes place at eye level, provides an idea of what Luma is looking at. There is no dialogue, apart from the occasional bit of hard-to-hear chat and humans are rarely seen other than around the edges of the frame, but occasionally – when she stands still just staring at the camera – there is a sense that Luma wants to tell you how she feels, if only she could.
She is not badly treated. She endures some indignities – such as when she’s immobilised in a hoist to allow her hooves to be trimmed with an angle grinder, of all things – but It is hard not to be moved by the excitement she and all the other cows share when they eventually leaves the cowshed for grazing in the fresh air. It’s clearly palpable. I was very touched by a scene shot at twilight, where Luma is standing stock still watching the night draw on, appreciating the silence. It makes the ending, where she is destroyed, all the more poignant.
Some will wonder at the point of such a film, with no people, words, action or special effects. That’s fair criticism, but watching it invites us to consider what we’ve seen and what it means. This is what industrialised farming is like. Yes, the film shows the excellent welfare standards under which Luma is kept – markedly different from those in some other countries – but we can’t escape the fact that she is there to be used by humans for food and to be destroyed when she no longer has any productive value. Like so much, she’s disposable.
Farming in crisis
So the release of the film comes at an important time. Evidence continues to mount that, like Luma, British farming is facing an existential crisis and is considered disposable post-Brexit. The NFU is furious at the way the farming community is being abandoned by the government and their deals with places like New Zealand and Australia. The government has just approved the use of neonicotinoids, one of the most harmful of pesticides to pollinating insects. The post-Brexit subsidies offered to the industry – when they’re ready – mean that land will be taken out of food production (to be replaced by cheap imports from the other side of the world) and used for rewilding. Pig farming is collapsing with stock being destroyed because of the shortage of skilled workers – a Brexit consequence. Dairy and beef producers are criticised for the amount of methane – a more dangerous greenhouse gas than CO2 – produced as a by-product of animal dung. There have been outbreaks of avian flu recently,
It also seems that people are changing their diets, giving up meat and dairy products in favour of plant based options. In Lincolnshire, which likes to boast about its contribution to the nation’s larder, there have even been stories recently about the enthusiasm for farming insect protein. Meanwhile arguments rage over the sort of land required for the building of solar farms – a necessity for clean electricity production, given the challenges of climate change and how to meet them. If these trends continue, and facing a host of multiple threats, the impact on farming and the countryside will be substantial. There must now be very real questions about whether farming in its current form in Britain is sustainable.
So Cow may be a film of no words, but the story it tells speaks volumes. It is currently being streamed on MUBI and may still be in some UK cinemas. Watch it for yourselves if you can and decide.