Why a Cow Documentary Reveals the Limits of an Art Form

The poignant and sincere documentary “Cow”, directed by Andrea Arnold, is an out of place film. Despite all its virtues, its most interesting action is not on screen but only suggested. This gap reflects a widespread documentary practice that is also a conventional error in aesthetic judgment. Arnold and his crew tracked a single dairy cow, named Luma, to a beef farm at Park Farm in Kent, England, for an intermittent period of four years. The film (out today in theaters and streaming across many services) watches her through the cycle of life, from calving and nursing to the trials of old age, amid structured working days. at the farm. Employees guide Luma and the many other cows to stalls where they are hooked up to electric milking machines, to fields where they frolic, to pens where they feed, to other pens where Luma is mated with a bull and becomes pregnant again. But the filmmakers are absent.

“Cow” filters the basic personal element. It does not show the crew’s interactions with the farmhands, who apparently claim that the crew and equipment are not there; the crew’s efforts to stay close to Luma; or the ostentatious intrusion of Arnold and his colleagues settling, with their equipment, on the farm and in the neighboring fields where the animals graze. Moreover, the film also excludes the backstory on which it inevitably depends: the negotiations of Arnold and the producer, Kat Mansoor, with the direction of the farm which fix there the conditions of shooting, implicitly transactional base of the very existence of the film. These omissions are not a new problem with documentary cinema; self-erasing comes up often (as in 2019’s Oscar-nominated ‘Honeyland’) and seems baked into other agrarian films such as ‘Gunda’ and ‘Four Seasons’, as if both implying and concealing the incongruity of the filmmakers. presence in natural and rustic environments.

In “Cow,” the drama is thin and the ideas are distant. Luma’s close-ups are the emotional engine of the film. (The cinematographer is Magda Kowalczyk.) These images have a soul that is then, at times, amplified in majesty by compositions in which sky, terrain and other animals fill the frame with a sense of united power, on a large scale and extent. . They are the exception – and they only punctuate the film’s sense of delivery of observational and reporting information. This is all the more why the film, despite the rambling rhythm, resembles the narrow train of a Hollywood fiction story.

The paradox of “Cow” is the paradox of modern documentary cinema, an aesthetic revolution born – in the United States and France – on the basis of technological innovation, the possibility of filming by recording synchronized sound with light equipment and portable. In 1960 Robert Drew produced “Primary”, in which he was able to send a team to Wisconsin to fit into the campaigns of Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they competed for the Democratic presidential nomination. Around the same time in France, filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin collaborated on “Chronique d’unété”, in which they and their associates stopped people in the street to ask them questions about their life, then probed further to explore the links. of work, life and politics – and to examine their own filmmaking process.

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Morin coined the term “cinema verite” for their project; Drew eventually borrowed the term for his work (he also used “straightforward drama” and “reality filmmaking”). Unlike Rouch and Morin, Drew (whose films included “The Chair,” “The Children Were Watching,” and “Crisis”) didn’t feature the filmmakers discussing their work on camera or openly interacting with their subjects. Nonetheless, Drew focused on the filmmakers’ presence, not their absence; for him, cinema was a unified field in which he and his team inevitably participated in the events they recorded. This participation is most often revealed in the behavior of the subjects who, far from going about their usual business, address the filmmakers, address the camera, play for it, recognize its presence and its power. Drew’s candid dramas are grounded in the realities of the subjects – beginning with the very fact of being filmed – and the emotional and intellectual authority of his work is rooted in these self-aware performances.

All great ideas are subject to corruption; all original artistic practices risk being reduced to formulas. Much of the practice of documentary filmmaking has shifted to the so-called observation or wall-flying method, where filmmakers are granted permission to fit into a setting that interests them and collect recordings with the authenticity of the real – while excluding the reality of the shooting. They fashion their material like the fiction of what it would have been had the filmmakers not been present. At best, this very idea resonates with a kind of directorial sass – it’s what Frederick Wiseman has been doing since the start of his career, and the audacity comes from what he does with his disappearing act, creating scenes of immense length and complexity, in which its participants seem to be playing not for itself but for themselves, as an essential aspect of their identity and social life. His narratives have broad arcs allowing for wide digressions as his main subject is the abstract frameworks of institutions. It does the analytical work that seemingly builds under the action as it goes on.

Few documentary filmmakers have followed Wiseman in the radical self-elising potential of on-screen events. Far more often, independent observation is a sedimented convention, a rash assumption about the very definition of documentary cinema – a choice, and a bad choice, that is taken for granted and natural. The past decade-plus has been a time of great revival in documentary filmmaking; the very notion of creative non-fiction has been developed and expanded, as seen in the work of filmmakers such as Robert Greene, Penny Lane, Khalik Allah, Nanfu Wang, Theo Anthony, Courtney Stephens, and Pacho Velez, among others. At the same time, new technologies have made their power felt, often in negative ways. Digital video cameras, which eliminate the high cost of shooting movies and allow huge amounts of material to be recorded, invite a fast editing process that compresses as much material as possible into the standard length of a film.

It would be absurd to even suggest a moratorium on the method of observation, but it is no less absurd to regard it uncritically – and the most vital critique the practice needs is that of the filmmakers themselves, in action. . “Cow” reflects an admirable and fascinating motif: entering into the daily experience and inner life of a farm animal. Arnold, a major artist in film fiction, made the characters’ self-presentation, their sense of performance in everyday life, a crucial part of his most original drama, “American Honey.” In “Cow”, Arnold did not view his subjects or his place in their world with as much rigor or origin. The strongest moments of “Cow” evoke his fervent and empathetic dramatic sensibility but not a strong awareness of the possibilities of documentary form. In this, she is far from alone; More than a filmmaker’s omissions, “Cow” reflects the unchallenged conventions of the time.

About Oscar L. Smith

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