The first documentary from Andrea Arnold deals, like several of her fiction films, with fractured mother-daughter bonds. But the mother in this case is Luma, a Holstein Friesian cow; the daughters – and we meet two of them, born during the course of Arnold’s four-year-production period – are calves who are wrenched from their mother’s side with a haste that, like much in the life of a dairy cow, seems unduly callous.
This is certainly not the first film to make the point that industrial farming and animal welfare are uneasy bedfellows. Everything from Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s austere, widescreen tableaux of industrial food production in Our Daily Bread (2005) to Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated Food, Inc (2008), which lifts the lid on America’s corporate food production, argues that the costs of intensive farming are high and are borne largely by the livestock. But Arnold’s film encourages an intimacy and emotional connection with its bovine subject that is rarely achieved elsewhere. The closest comparison would be Viktor Kosakovskiy’s Gunda (2020), which traced the daily life of a pig through artfully framed black and white photography.
Arnold, however, has no desire to prettify her subject matter. The film is shot with handheld urgency, the lens positioned at udder and eye level. She forces us to confront the grinding cycle of life for a dairy cow, the dull buzz of strip lights and the murky gloom in the milking sheds. Perhaps most heartbreaking is the moment of skittish joy when the cows are released into pastures in spring – tellingly, it’s a good 45 minutes into the film before we even glimpse a blade of grass.
It’s not an easy watch, certainly – I cried more or less solidly through the last 30 minutes – but it’s an important one.