Meet Gunda, the muddy ‘Meryl Streep’ of pigs

Hogging the limelight: Gunda follows the daily life of an ordinary pig and her piglets. © Neon

Can a pig change your life? A film following a sow raising her piglets on a free-range farm opens today. Some hope the story of Gunda will change how we think about animals.

The hottest film of the summer has arrived. “Wonderfully immersive,” said The Washington Post. “Astounding… a minimalist epic” gushed the Financial Times. Celebrated director Paul Thomas Anderson said: “It’s what we should all aspire to as filmmakers.”

Gunda is a critical smash. But it is far from a conventional blockbuster. It is a documentary. It was filmed in black and white. It has neither words nor music. And instead of a big name Hollywood actor, it stars Gunda, a humble pig.

Directed by Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky, Gunda offers a 90-minute slice of life on a Norwegian free-range farm. Nothing much happens. There are close shots of Gunda as she sleeps, rolls in the mud and feeds her litter. The supporting cast includes a cow and a flock of chickens. No humans ever appear on the screen.

With its unhurried pace and startling cinematography, Gunda has been called a “mesmeric poetic work of art”. But by showing livestock as individuals, the film also challenges how we think of them. Kossakovsky says: “Each of them is someone, with their own struggles, sufferings, emotions, happiness.”

This contrasts starkly with the conventional treatment of animals. Most people eat meat: it is estimated that only 14% of the world population identify themselves as vegetarian or vegan. Last year, we collectively slaughtered 300 million cows, 1.5 billion pigs and 66 billion chickens. After watching Gunda, her owner allowed her to live. But her children were shown no such mercy.

Pigs are often subject to particular scorn. In English, the very word “pig” has become an insult. In Buddhism, pigs represent delusion, one of the three traits that cause suffering and bad reincarnations.

Pig flesh, fat and blood is used in hundreds of meat dishes, from bacon to black pudding, Schweinshaxe to Salchichón. Sweets like Haribo contain pig protein. Pigs’ keen noses are employed for hunting truffles.

The bodies of pigs find their way into many other products, including paint, ammunition, train brakes, soap, washing powder and bone china. Scientists have even experimented on pigs to grow replacement organs for humans. This is made possible because pigs show many similarities with humans. Like us, they are omnivores covered in a light layer of hair. Most of their organs are the same, or very similar, to our own.

They are also highly intelligent. Neuroscientist Lori Morino says: “in many domains, pigs are as cognitively complex as dogs, primates.” They are able to think strategically and form affectionate relationships. Some have even learnt to play video games.

Gunda is not the first pig to capture the human imagination. Culture is littered with porcine characters, both good and bad: Wilbur, Piglet, Napoleon in Animal Farm. That we keep creating these figures suggests that we see something of ourselves in pigs.

Can a pig change your life?

Whole hog

Yes, say some. Cinema requires us to drift out of the noise and notifications of life and focus on the screen. By allowing viewers to get up close and personal with the life of a pig and her brood, Gunda subtly asks us to reconsider how we treat farm animals. It might not work for everyone. But the hints of humanity Kossakovsky reveals in his pigs will surely turn some viewers off meat.

No, say others. We absorb countless films, books, songs and artworks. Yet there is very little evidence that an encounter with one can dramatically alter someone’s life. A wordless depiction of animal life might provoke a moment of sympathy. But to make people rethink their relationship with animals in the long term, you need facts, figures and force of argument, rather than images alone.

You Decide

  1. Has a work of art ever changed your life?
  2. Should we treat more intelligent animals differently than less intelligent ones?

Activities

  1. In pairs, choose an animal. Draw a poster or collage featuring several characters based on that animal in culture.
  2. In groups of three, brainstorm an idea for a documentary capturing an element of everyday life. Write a summary of the film’s subject and aims, then storyboard a trailer.

Some People Say...

“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Winston Churchill (1874 — 1965), British politician and prime minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scientists generally agree that pigs have numerous biological similarities to humans. We share almost all the same muscles and organs. Many of the differences — the number of lobes in our livers, the size of our thymus glands — are minor, though there are some clear exceptions, beyond our different level of intelligence. Humans are bipeds, while pigs are quadrupeds. Pigs have spiral-shaped colons. And pig uteruses feature two large horns, which allow them to give birth to large litters.
What do we not know?
There remains fervent debate on how to measure animal intelligence, in part because there are many ways to define intelligence. One method is to measure brain-to-body ratio, although this is often inaccurate. Another is to use mirror-self recognition, which records how long an animal takes to see itself in a mirror. A third is to observe social behaviour. Some scientists believe we cannot meaningfully compare animal intelligence at all, due to the diverse abilities of different species.

Word Watch

Minimalist
Lacking in decoration or ornament. Deriving from the Latin word minimus meaning “smallest”, minimalist was first used to describe the Mensheviks, a Russian revolutionary group.
Cinematography
The art of motion-picture photography and filming. It derives from two ancient words meaning “movement” and “to write”.
Reincarnations
Buddhists believe that a person’s actions lead to them being reborn after death as another creature, whose nature is determined by their actions in life.
Schweinshaxe
A traditional German dish consisting of a roasted pork knuckle, which is the end of a pig’s leg before the ankle.
Salchichón
A type of dry Spanish sausage, usually made of pork, which has been cured by adding salt to draw the moisture out of food.
Porcine
Anything that resembles a pig or is pig-like.
Wilbur
Protagonist of EB White’s 1952 Charlotte’s Web, about a pig’s friendship with a spider.
Piglet
A fictional character in AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books and their many adaptations. Pooh’s best friend, Piglet is small, squeaky and often timid.
Animal Farm
A 1945 satirical novella published by George Orwell. Animal Farm re-enacts the Russian Revolution using farmyard animals. Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, while fellow pigs Snowball and Old Major represent Leon Trotsky and both Vladmir Lenin and Karl Marx respectively.
Genetically distant
Humans are more closely related to mice than pigs.

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