Andrea Arnold’s documentary film “Cow” directly looks into an inconvenient fact of dairy business. It is undeniable that our human society has exploited millions of cows to get lots of milk produced from their bodies everyday, and the documentary gives us a series of sobering moments as calmly observing how its two bovine subjects are exploited in one way or another at one rural dairy farm in England.
The film opens with one of its two bovine subjects giving birth to the other one. After its female calf is successfully delivered, the cow is allowed to mother the calf for some time, but then it is eventually separated from the calf, and then we see it being subjected to the following milking process along with many other cows in the farm. As the camera is simply watching it mooing helplessly toward its calf, we cannot help but feel sorry for it, and we are all the more horrified as observing how it and other cows are systemically used for producing tons of milk secreted from their big nipples.
Although the documentary does not provide any comment or narration, we slowly come to gather how these numerous cows in the farm go through one day after another as constantly handled and monitored by those farm employees. At one point, the cow gets its uterus examined for being checked for whether it is well enough for another pregnancy, and this is certainly not a pleasant sight at all. Just imagine how you would possibly feel if you were frequently forced to get pregnant and then milked again and again while being stuck in a stuffy and muddy place along with many other cows.
Meanwhile, the documentary also focuses on how that calf is handled after being separated from its mother. At first, it is taken to a small cage where it can be raised alone for some time, but, once it grows up a bit more during next several weeks, it soon gets thrown into the system along with many other calves. At one point, a farm employee cauterizes two certain spots of its head for preventing the growth of its two horns, and you may wince as observing how this rather cruel job is casually done step by step.
Nevertheless, the documentary keeps holding our attention thanks to its considerable verisimilitude. As the camera constantly stays around its two bovien subjects and many other cows in the farm, the documentary gradually immerses us into their daily life, and we come to pay more attention to some interesting details presented on the screen. I do not know how the cows actually feel about a certain pop song played in the background, but that soft pop song makes an interesting contrast to their drab life condition, and I was also fascinated with one certain brief scene showing how the hooves of one cow are thoroughly cleaned for a hygenical reason.
The mood becomes a bit sunnier than before when the cows and calves are later allowed to be outside their cages. As they freely move around here and there in a field outside the farm, Arnold and her cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk vividly present a series of pastoral moments enhanced further by bright natural light, and we also become a bit more relaxed despite knowing too well that these animals’ free time on the field will be soon over.
What follows next is more or less than the repetition of what we previously observed. Once it is deemed to be ready for impregnation, the cow is soon put in a cage along with a black bull horny enough for their mating, and its pregnancy is confirmed not long after that. Some time later, another calf is born as expected, and the cow goes through another suffering as being subjected to the milking process along with other cows as usual.
And then there comes an inevitable moment as the cow reaches to the point where it cannot possibly be milked anymore. Although we already know what will eventually occur, it is still quite sad and devastating to say the least, and the camera thankfully distances itself from that a bit while never becoming sentimental about that. In the adamantly objective viewpoint of the documentary, the cow is a crucial but ultimately expendable entity to be discarded sooner or later, and the last scene of the documentary is going to unnerve you more as showing a bunch of calves which will surely go through that grim circle of life just like many cows before that.
On the whole, “Cow” is another interesting work from Arnold, who previously impressed me and other audiences a lot with “Fish Tank” (2009) and “American Honey” (2016). I do not know whether this documentary will actually change your viewpoint on dairy business, but I can tell you at least that it is a mesmerizing experience which deserves to be compared with Viktor Kosakovskiy’s “Gunda” (2020), an equally exceptional documentary about the daily life of one certain female pig and several other animals in one farm besides its little piglets. While these two documentaries do not make any direct point on their respective main subjects, many indelible moments of theirs will probably make you reflect more on our relationships with livestock animals we have exploited for many years, and you may come to understand the value of vegetarianism at least. Sure, we will probably continue to use livestock animals as one of our main sources of protein as before, but, considering how much they have been exploited for our life and society, they deserve better care and treatment at least, don’t they?
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