In Your Eyes:
An Interview with Victor Kossakovsky (Gunda)
By Nicolas Rapold

I’ve often thought that the best documentary filmmakers take you places you didn’t know you could go, and not just in the physical sense. Victor Kossakovsky’s previous feature, Aquarela, showcases humans voyaging into spectacular realms of ice and water, amped up with heavy metal and Atmos sound, but I was most impressed by a forbidden-feeling long shot early in the film: a car speeding full-tilt across a frozen but thawing lake, a joyride at an insane level of risk. The ice breaks, the car falls in, and while we watch the rescue efforts, we’re given the space to wonder: what on earth were they thinking? Much earlier in Kossakovsky’s career, he accomplished one of the great conceptual feats of documentary short filmmaking with Svyato, which immortalizes his young son’s first, confounding encounter with a mirror and his swirl of reactions. Likewise, his family epic The Belovs (smartly given a run last December aside the streaming premiere of Gunda) in many ways covers a vaster terrain than the explicit globe-trotting of Kossakovsky’s delightful Vivan las antípodas!

Gunda takes viewers to a physical place that might not seem very foreign or exotic: a livestock farm. But Kossakovsky explores something just as wild as the animal kingdoms in conventional nature films: an uncharted inner kingdom—namely, how might these pigs, cows, and chickens be experiencing the world? And this doesn’t involve strapping helmet-cams to runaway piglets, but rather an emotional and sensorial proximity that allows us to be with the animals as well as watch them. Gunda is the name of a sow on this Norwegian farm whose piglets we witness from birth, without the customary voiceover commenting on their growth or their mother’s approach to parenting. The film culminates in a genuinely moving ending, one that turns our empathy in a direction we might not be prepared to go. If your mind here jumps to the bloodletting of Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes, don’t worry—it’s all in the eyes, and more unnerving than some climactic depiction of barnyard slaughter, because its motivating energies come from Gunda herself.

In conversation, Kossakovsky has a sly sense of humor and a mischievous knack for unraveling the kinks in an idea only to lead us to new ones. Gunda had its world premiere at the Berlinale in 2020, and receives a proper U.S. theatrical run this week, allowing us viewers to sit with its enchanting black-and-white imagery of animals and take their full measure.

REVERSE SHOT: I found your film hypnotic. Do you know how, when you watch an animal, it can give you a certain peace?

VICTOR KOSSAKOVSKY: That’s true. Once in my life, when I was filming Vivan las antípodas!, I met a lion alone. I was with a camera without any support or car or protection. And I realized a strange thing: I was not afraid. There was this respect we had for each other. We looked at each other, and then he passed by and touched my arm, and it was fine. My team was laughing. They said, oh, is it because you’re vegetarian that the lion doesn’t eat you?

RS: So you weren’t afraid at all? Because rabbits just freeze—I think I might freeze that close to a lion.

VK: Normally, even with a cat I will be afraid, and with a dog I will be really afraid, but with the lion, I was amazed: I was not afraid for one second. We could stay, we could look at each other and respect each other. And that is what I wanted to achieve with Gunda: to give this feeling that animals have a personality, and we just have to accept it.

RS: Was spending so much time filming animals also calming or still stressful because you were making a movie?

VK: No, it was the easiest movie to do, and such a pleasure. I wrote in my little diary, “I have never been so happy.” They really gave you something every day. They don’t use words as we do, but they talk with their eyes, and you feel what they say to you. They can transmit it in a way that you cannot miss it. In the end, Gunda definitely says, “Fuck you.”

RS: Yeah, when she turns to the camera after she can’t find her piglets anywhere. Were you standing there—is she turning to you?

VK: Yes. First, she almost said, “What the fuck are you doing to me?” and then she said, “Okay, you are hopeless. There is nothing to talk to you about.” This was so easy to read, right? It was unmistakable. I started crying because I knew she was talking to me. I felt guilt, and that is why I wanted to call the film My Apology. But of course, my distributors said, “We cannot call the film Apology. People will feel bad. People don’t want to have feelings of apology, especially in the U.S.—we don’t have apology culture.” But my intention was to call it My Apology because I know that I will not change the planet. People will still eat animals. People will still mistreat them and torture them.

RS: Was that one of the last shots you did?

VK: Yeah.

RS: So that was your goodbye.

VK: Yeah, it was my goodbye. It was really like, “After this, we’re done. We cannot do anything more.”

RS: How is it different shooting an animal on screen versus a human being?

VK: In a way it was much easier because I came to the conclusion that we know everything about humans. Look, we have been doing movies for a hundred years and they are mostly about humans, and if they’re about animals, we still talk in voiceover, so it’s still about humans again. Why do we keep making movies about humans? We already know who we are: we are cheaters, we are aggressive, we are able to kill, to kill massively, to torture, to sacrifice, to love, to form deep friendship. We know everything, so why do we continue making movies about us?

But there are things we still don’t know. We still don’t know how this planet was made. We don’t know much about life. We still don’t know how a cow—did you know a cow is never late? If a cow knows she will get water at 7 o’clock, she will come at 7 o’clock. How does she know? She doesn’t have anything [like a clock]. We cannot understand that animal voices have different words. Even “moo” we think is just “moo.” I count 300 different moos. If you record a moo and put it in a computer, then you see it’s not just a moo, it’s different every time. In every situation, you can predict which moo she will use. We think they are stupid. Not at all. They have language.

I will be arrogant right now. I will say it like this: good or bad filmmakers do films about what they understand. An artist makes films about what he doesn’t understand. And I want to make a movie about what I don’t know. For me, this is discovery.

RS: That makes me think of your film Tishe! [“Hush!” in which Kossakovsky films his St. Petersburg street from his apartment window], because you really don’t know what’s going to happen on a given day. And Svyato, the film where your son looks in a mirror for the first time.

VK: By the way, about the mirror: as you remember in my film, he needed almost 30 minutes before he understood that it’s him [in the mirror] and that left is right and right is left. Piglet needs one look, and he immediately gets it. One look! Isn’t it amazing? I studied a lot, and of course I did some things, but I didn’t want to include it into the film.

RS: You mean you did some tests?

VK: Yeah, of course. I knew that scientists were doing it. When I checked [the piglet’s reactions to a mirror] myself, it was shocking to me because I had already made that film about my kid. It means there are many things we simply don’t know, and this is much more interesting than to repeat again, “Oh, she loves him.” “Oh, he loves you.” “But he cheats.” “Oh, how is it possible?” “He is such a bad guy.” “But still, she loves him so much.” Isn’t it enough?

RS: Even if a movie is about animals, it’s so often the same.

VK: It’s the same. They try to humanize them and make it from our perspective. Why must a piglet know mathematics? He doesn’t need to. Scientists say that pigs are the second-most intelligent animal—because we measure it from our point of view. In fact, the crocodile may be more intelligent, but the problem is he doesn’t let us check... We will never know.

RS: Looking at your films, I think you like to show thought processes.

VK: Yes. Since my first film. My first idea was to film a philosopher in the moment when he does not know what he is going to say, and when he is saying it, he is creating his thought, he is coming to the idea while talking. For me it was important to find it in his face.

RS: I think there’s a bit of that going on in the shot of the one-legged chicken in Gunda.

VK: Absolutely! I am so happy you said this. For me it was the most fascinating thing, because we always consider a chicken like, come on, it’s just a chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken. [chuckles] No! She was obviously thinking before walking forward. The fact that she has just one leg makes it so difficult for her, every step. She needs to know where she’s going. She must calculate, there and there and there—and then she goes. Obviously using her brain.

RS: In terms of filming the animals, could you talk about your camera setups? We get so close to Gunda. Sometimes the camera seems to be on a track but not always—I couldn’t quite figure it out. I did read that the barn was set up for the camera to move 360 degrees around Gunda.

VK: There are some secrets. I will not talk about everything. We had to make it in a way that didn’t touch them or destroy them.

RS: Right, the animals don’t seem bothered.

VK: There are more interesting questions inside this one. It’s not easy to make Steadicam shots generally, because with Steadicam, you always have to keep not only the composition but also the right distance. One of the key questions of filmmaking is the distance between camera and subject, or character. Do you remember any Rembrandt pictures? The question is not about composition and lighting. Why Rembrandt is crucial for art is because he’s choosing the right scale. So, if I’m making a portrait, I need to think: is it a big portrait, is it small? Is it like this, or like this? And I have to choose it right in the first place. You can do big or small, but originally as an artist you have to choose: okay, I take this canvas, or that canvas. And you cannot make a mistake. This is how Rembrandt is different from others: he doesn’t make a mistake in how he chooses the size of the picture. And this is exactly what camera position is doing in cinema. So, I’m one-meter distance from you, but if I were to move like this [leans in closer] it would already be uncomfortable for you because, why am I closer? And if I move a tiny bit here...

RS: We lose the energy.

VK: Yes, exactly. So, it means that in every minute of our relationship, we have a particular position when it’s perfect. This is why if the director is making mistakes with the position, with the distances between camera and character, people feel wrong. This is what it is when people watch and consciously experience comfort or discomfort or think that it’s fake or it’s documentary or a real actor playing a character.

This guy who was doing Steadicam for me, Egil [Håskjold Larsen], is ideal. I saw his movie 69 Minutes of 86 Days, about a Syrian family traveling from Syria to Sweden. He made it himself with Steadicam. When I saw it, I said, if I need Steadicam, I’m going to call him. Because he really knows how to find the distance. And with animals he did it perfectly as well. Even coming close to a cow. And the cow was communicating, and she allowed him to come closer. Even with a bull, who can kill in a second. This is the magic of the relationship and the right distance: when you feel the energy but still don’t disturb the energy. Egil is brilliant at this.

And that is why in the end, Gunda came to us herself. She came and she looked at us.

RS: She established the contact.

VK: Yes. Every filmmaker can only dream about this. Because normally you force it, you cut it, you have a close-up. No, she came herself. That’s why it works, this movie.

RS: How long did it take to edit?

VK: One week. Easiest film ever.

RS: Is it the same family of piglets throughout the movie?

VK: Yes, yes, yes.

RS: So, you got to watch them grow.

VK: We filmed them from the first minute [of their lives]. You see one’s shy. One’s aggressive. You see it immediately. One’s sneaky. We filmed one week in the beginning when they were born, then we took a break for a month. Then we came for three days when they were one month old, then we took a break again three to four weeks, and we came for four days at the end. And then we filmed the chicken for two days and the cows for two days. It was really beautifully easy. And it was such a pleasure to edit the film, because it was not much footage: only seven hours. It was like 30 years ago when I was filming black-and-white movies in 35mm.

RS: Would you want to do another movie with animals?

VK: I will never repeat myself. I can say one movie I’m making. It is called Architecture. It’s actually about buildings. And buildings maybe will be alive in a way, in my movie... Buildings are older than us. Our life is 100 years old if we’re lucky. But a building can live on average 300 years, right? We can destroy them a little bit, we can paint them pink, we can change the windows. And probably the buildings say, okay, you will die soon, and someone else will come and paint me green, so I can wait. I believe I will make talking buildings.

RS: I read an interview where you talked about “sentimentality.” What does it mean to you?

VK: I was afraid [of sentimentality]. This is also one of the reasons I made the movie in black and white. You really see personality instead of beautiful piglets. You see them as they are. But I also didn’t want to be like, oh let’s not eat animals—I didn’t want to film slaughter. Because it doesn’t work, any of this. Look at YouTube, the most popular videos are about cats. And it doesn’t change anything.

RS: It’s almost as if it replaces our having to care.

VK: Exactly. People like ducklings. At the same time, they are killing them. Come on! Now [with the film] it looks like people are reacting in the way they are supposed to: you see animals as they are, and you start to question.

RS: This is an interesting development with Joaquin Phoenix [who came on as executive producer in support of the film]. Did you talk to him?

VK: Oh yes, we are chatting almost every day. It’s fascinating. He is very straightforward, and powerful. His reaction was immediate, like an explosion. He made Paul Thomas Anderson watch it, and his reaction was also [makes explosion sound]. When Joaquin was getting the Oscar, all my friends called me asking, “Did you write to him?” No, come on, it was his speech! “He just said exactly what you’ve been saying every day to us!” We are killing them, torturing them, we are not respecting their feelings. We are really doing wrong. We allow ourselves to treat them like our slaves. It’s slavery. That means we allow ourselves to be so awful. And we don’t want to face it.

RS: I don’t know how to ask this but: why do you think animals are still gentle to us?

VK: It’s temporary, of course. We have two different beliefs. Some people believe in evolution; other people believe in God’s creation. For both, I have bad news, because if you believe in God’s creation then, first of all, it’s probably written [in the Bible] “do not kill.” Then follow that! Because it didn’t say “do not kill humans.” It’s also written that three thousand years ago God created first light and then earth and then water and then plants and then animals—and then humans to rule it. So, in the first page of Bible, there is a fundamental mistake.

RS: That they put us in charge?

VK: That we are the most important and everyone else is in our service—which is totally wrong! Because, in fact, animals lived much longer than us: piglets have lived for millions of years—we have lived maybe 200,000 years. But if we believe in evolution, I also have bad news for you. Because it means that, sooner or later, there will appear another creature that is more clever than human. That creature may be more aggressive than us. And that creature will probably choose to eat our kids for breakfast—separate them from Mum from the first day after birth and put them on the Christmas table. So be careful, guys. Be careful!