Cannes 2021: Hang Out with Cows in Andrea Arnold's Doc Film 'Cow'
by Alex Billington
July 9, 2021
There will be before Cow, and there will be after Cow. But in all seriousness… Andrea Arnold's documentary film Cow is the latest offering on the Vegan Cinema menu, premiering at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in a brand new out-of-competition section called Cannes Première. The film features almost no talking, and no dialogue except for a few words spoken in the background by farm workers. There is some music, but that's a different surprise. Instead, the camera focuses on cows at a factory farm in the UK. Specifically one older bovine and two of her calves, which she gives birth to in the film. This isn't the first film to do this – Viktor Kosakovskiy's Gunda, which premiered at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, also features nothing but footage of farm animals roaming around. But this time we get a much closer look at the brutality of factory farming, and the sickening process of breeding and raising animals solely to produce food for humans – and that's it.
Cow is the first documentary film made by award-winning English filmmaker Andrea Arnold, known for bringing hard-hitting dramas to the Cannes Film Festival in the past - including Red Road, Fish Tank, and American Honey. Despite the obvious vegan agenda, Cow is presented as a neutral film – the camera doesn't judge the farm or the cows or the workers or anything else. It just lets us see what's going on. It's up to us to judge the situation and empathize with the animals, or not. It is clear that Arnold has an agenda, and she stated at the beginning of the film that it's a very personal project for her. And the goal is obvious, whether they will admit it or not – to make us understand just how harsh and horrible it is to raise animals for human consumption, force them into this system and use them until they're not useful anymore, then kill them. Most of us know about this farming already, but seeing it in action is a whole different experience.
The most interesting thing on my mind during the film is that I don't think Arnold's Cow is going to change anyone's mind or have a great impact on meat and dairy consumption. I know I definitely don't want to ever drink cow milk again. But that's a decision I already made well before watching this film. I also think there are plenty of people who love to eat meat and drink milk that will watch this and say, well yeah, this is just an inside look at the farming process and that's just how it is. So what. All the workers there are just doing their jobs, and none of them really want to hurt the animals, they're just trying to make sure the business runs as it should and the cows produce milk for human to consume. But it also would not be as effective of a film if it was any more heavy-handed, if it was trying to force us to acknowledge how horrible this is. We all need to learn to develop empathy and understanding in our own way, and thankfully the film lets us do that.
The other problem is that the people who need to open their minds to and learn about how horrible factory farming are not the kind of people who are going to watch this film. Cow is literally nothing but 90 minutes of cows walking and running around a farm, being shifted from pen to pen, being milked by machines, and occasionally running gleefully in a green pasture. It's a bit boring to sit through, and cinephiles will likely be the only ones to watch. But I like this film more than Gunda, similar in its pure cinema observation of farm animals and their simple lives. It is more dynamic, and more engaging and immersive. And most of all, it's the kind of film that will stick around in your mind for a long time. You will remember the iconic shots of the cow gazing up at the sky, and the look on her face when she knows something bad is about to happen. That is ultimately the great power of Vegan Cinema: to stick with you, slowly but surely changing your mind.