What is it like to be an animal? This film takes us a long way from anthropomorphic attempts to assume that animals have feelings like human beings. But what is it like to be a cow? Luma, who lives on a state of the art dairy farm in Kent, England stares at us (or into the camera) with what has been described as ‘mysterious placidity’ https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jul/08/cow-review-andrea-arnold-first-documentary-is-meaty-slice-of-bovine-socio-realism.
The film runs for well over an hour and during that time we are with Luma as she goes about the routine of her life — her raison d’être is to provide milk. We first see her giving birth — the film was made over a four year period. The calf is pulled out with rope — this seems to be standard. There is a touching scene where Luma licks her calf clean, the calf tries to suckle, but is taken away and hand fed and, the after-birth still trailing, Luma is encouraged into the electric milking machines.
Cruel? Probably not as large-scale dairy farms go. Extraordinarily, there is no narration, although we hear the farm-workers talk to the cows in a kindly way (even if ‘girlies’ is a bit inappropriate). Luma is called by her name and on the whole gently enticed into the milking machines and the pen where, a few months later, she is mated again and there is another pregnancy. In spring, the cows spend time in lush green fields and they trot willingly (of necessity?) back to be milked. My sense was that they know what is going on. When her calf is taken away from her, Luma’s mooing is plaintive — the calf calls out and she answers — this goes on for some time, some days, I think. Of course we immediately transfer this experience to the thought of a human child being taken from its mother — but Luma was upset. Distraught, one might say.
In an interview, the director Andrea Arnold said, ‘They say the difference between humans and animals is that we can see the past and think about the future, but I could see that Luma knew what’s coming when she’s pregnant. She got particularly mad when she saw the farmer taking away a calf from another cow.’
The film is said to follow the approach of the cinema vérité of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) about the life of a donkey who ends up with various owners most of whom treat him callously. Andrea Arnold says that the film is not intended to be political, but ‘a presentation of life’. She chose a cow because they work so hard. However, as we left the cinema people were proclaiming, ‘I’m never going to drink a latté again’. I had feared that there would be scenes of slaughter, but Arnold chose a dairy farm. Luma worked until she had provided pretty much every drop of milk possible. By the end of the movie she is old, having had at least six calves. Her udders are grossly enlarged from so much milking — to the extent that she has trouble walking. A humane end? She is taken into a reasonably spacious pen, given a bucket of what I presumed is pleasant food, and quickly shot.
My feeling is that this film will be viewed in a political light by many — even if this isn’t the intention of the director. Luma’s life may well have been better than that of many cattle (in a Q & A after the film we were given some insight into an appalling situation in India — home of the sacred cow). For how long can the world justify industries of this kind? Luma couldn’t have escaped — she was enslaved, albeit in a kinder and gentler fashion than in some other areas of the cattle industry.