‘They killed my best friend for supper!’ Gunda, the farmyard film that could put you off eating meat for ever

A sow, two cows and a one-legged chicken are the stars of Victor Kossakovsky’s unique documentary, which Hollywood’s most famous vegan, Joaquin Phoenix, has helped to get the audience it deserves

When Victor Kossakovsky was four, his parents sent him from St Petersburg to stay with his uncle’s family in the countryside. “It was a cold winter,” he says, brrr-ing over Zoom. “Minus 30 degrees.”

Warmth came from the boy’s friendship with a one-month-old piglet named Vasya. They were inseparable – until she became cutlets for New Year’s Eve supper.

“When they ate her, for me, it was a total disaster,” says Kossakovsky. “You killed my best friend!” he screamed at his relatives. And so, he jokes, he became the Soviet Union’s first vegetarian.

Half a century later, Kossakovsky went vegan, as he began production on Gunda, a documentary shot in Norway, Wales and England starring a sow, who gives her name to the title, a couple of ageing cows, and a one-legged chicken.

Gunda is no ordinary wildlife documentary. There is no narration or soundtrack. Instead, in glorious monochrome, we watch the animals simply exist: they feed, snuffle, snuggle, care for their young, and scamper in fields. It turns out that no digital trickery or anthropomorphic narrative is needed for us to fall in love with them.

“I see documentary films as an artform, so I didn’t put any words or music there,” says Kossakovsky of the aesthetic. “That is why, when we are talking, I need to express all this because I’m burning.”

Gunda is not, he says, vegan propaganda. Yet there is no doubt the man himself is an activist as much as an artist. On set, he would gather the crew together every day at 5am and deliver a motivational talk, reminding them why this 20-years-in-the-making passion project was so vital for humanity.

“The difference between a normal person and a film-maker is that a film-maker can see things a normal person cannot see,” he says. “That’s why cinema exists: not to tell you a story but to show you things that you cannot see, did not want to see, or chose to ignore. Every day, people choose to ignore what they know about how the food came to the table.”

Gunda was the toast of the Berlin film festival in February 2020; the last event of its kind before the global pandemic. Earlier that month, Joaquin Phoenix, Hollywood’s most active vegan, delivered a rallying cry for the lifestyle while accepting his best actor Oscar for Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix accepts his best actor Oscar. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

“We go into the natural world,” he said, “and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

Immediately after the speech, says Kossakovsky, “people started calling me and asking if I wrote it because what he was saying was what I would tell my crew every day”. The British director Lynne Ramsay, who had worked with Phoenix on You Were Never Really Here, helped get a copy of Gunda to him.

Victor Kossakovsky
Victor Kossakovsky Photograph: PR

Phoenix called its director the moment the credits rolled. “Wow, someone filmed them,” said Phoenix. “Not us. Not us killing them. Not in the slaughterhouse. But them. Their personality. I want to be part of it.”

The actor came on board as executive producer and has been instrumental in spreading the word publicly, as well as encouraging friends such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón and Gus van Sant to follow suit. (Kossakovsky was also the first person to reveal both the birth and the name of Phoenix’s son, River, last September.)

Phoenix’s involvement has been a game-changer, says Kossakovsky today. Though he himself is a relatively big name in the Russian documentary field, his reach was limited. In Europe, he thinks, “we know how to make movies, but we don’t know how to show movies. America is the only country who knows how to promote films.”

Presentation is clearly important to Kossakovsky. For our early afternoon Zoom call, he is wearing a black tuxedo jacket and white dinner shirt. Is he going anywhere nice? “No. I knew that I was going to be speaking to you. So I wore this. It’s just my way,” he says, meekly. Every so often, he lifts a long clear glass into the frame and takes a sip of black tea.

In fact, he makes a great, gentle frontman.He remains soft-spoken throughout our chat, every word – even if it concerns the hydro-economics of intensive livestock production – sounding like a lullaby.

He is eager not to simply preach to the converted, he says. “I don’t make films for myself. I don’t make films for people who believe in nature, or only for vegetarians. I make films for everyone, even those who do not share my opinions.”

Still, he loves letters testifying to Gunda’s power to make one renounce eating animals for ever (his own children, he says proudly, have never tasted meat).

Today, he lives in Berlin, which is a good place for vegan food. When he came over to the UK to shoot the non-porcine portions of Gunda, he was cheered by the number of animal sanctuaries.You can see how such institutions would impress a man for whom direct action is not something to shy away from. When we speak, he is still recovering from a six-day hunger strike in support of the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny. “It was not a political act,” he says. “It was an act of empathy for his mum, who for me was Gunda. Her child was taken away from her. We stopped because our demand was for him to be visited by a doctor. I was so happy because at least his mum could breathe a sigh of relief. I do not consider myself a hero.”

And as for Gunda herself? She, too, is now safe: the farmer who raised her felt unable to slaughter the sow after seeing the film. The piglets, however, were taken from her during filming, and contemplating their fate still causes Kossakovsky pain.

The capacity of cinema to win hearts and minds cannot be understated, he says. “We had the industrial revolution, digital revolution, sexual revolution, social revolution and now is time for the empathy revolution.”

• Gunda is in UK cinemas from 4 June

Kaleem Aftab

The GuardianTramp

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