Pure Presence: Andrea Arnold Discusses "Cow"

The British director talks about her immersive and empathetic documentary portrait of a dairy cow named Luma.
Savina Petkova

Andrea Arnold's Cow is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting February 11, 2022 in the series Luminaries.

Five years after the intimate rawness of American Honey (2016) won Andrea Arnold the Jury Prize in Cannes, a not too different mode of affection adorns Cow—a contemplative documentary with an unexpected star to steal everyone’s hearts. Luma, or cow no. 1129 at her home farm, is the British Holstein protagonist of Arnold’s fourth feature film and her lustrous presence regales the animal of the title with personified dignity.

The lives of animals are unimaginable for us humans, but with the help of the film medium and its capacity to record the real in a nonhuman way, this distance can be bridged, all the while avoiding the traps of anthropomorphism. The desire to bring animals closer, coupled with the ever-present allure of the possibility of understanding them, informs many observational documentaries, not to mention the myriads of fictional narratives that have pets feel, talk, or even sing. However, it is the same passionate will to actualize what feminist scholar Donna Haraway has termed “species companionship” that imbues nonfiction and fiction approaches to making animal cinema.

But all this is not as theory-bound as it sounds, as the most “real” and the most touching animal protagonists are not captured on camera—for the mere jargon we use already implies hierarchy—but seem to inhabit the frame, often transcending its limitations with their emotional reach. For Arnold, the shooting process was as intuitive as being with the animals themselves. For four years, the filmmaker and her team would periodically join in and film the cows’ lives, composed of standalone significant events—birth, mating, death—when repeated again and again in the cycle of a dairy farm in Kent. Behind the camera, Magda Kowalczyk stays as close as possible, without assuming the animal’s point of view. It is therefore not surprising that the visuals of Cow are reminiscent of Fish Tank and American Honey and the way Arnold’s films draw the viewer in just close enough to their protagonists, with the help of a shaky, over-the-shoulder cinematography.

We sat down with Arnold to discuss her instinctual mode of filmmaking and the way she crafts a filmic world for her protagonists to both inhabit and overcome. For Cow, this translates into a respectful tribute to Luma and animals as sentient beings who deserve beauty. Since they already are beauty itself.

NOTEBOOK:  At the film’s beginning, the camera is the first thing the newborn calf sees. What was the starting point for the film’s visuals: if you’d be observing, or if you are adopting the animals’ perspective?

ANDREA ARNOLD: In the early days, even before interviewing cinematographers, we were looking at what would be the best way to film animals. Very early on, I realized that actually staying with their heads and seeing their eyes was really important, because that's where you could see what they were feeling and what they were. I mean, obviously, we don't know what they're thinking, but you could—you could see them. So very early on, I decided that we should stay with her, and that meant staying with her head. And actually, to be honest, in a way, it's very similar to what I do in my drama films: I follow one person, I stick with them. You see, they're reacting to the world. And I did very much the same with Cow.

NOTEBOOK: The camera is definitely not at human height. I can imagine it’s physically demanding for a human cinematographer to level themselves with an animal. Would you say that dispensing with the human eye level is a way to bring the viewer closer to the animals themselves?

ARNOLD: I think it was really important to stick with Luma’s head. And that gave us kind of an insight into how she's feeling about things.

NOTEBOOK: Female cows are symbolic of labor, the milk, the meat, the reproduction and the social in the film, and the film begins with birth and labor, quite literally. In film, animals don’t act but they do some sort of labor on screen. Were you wary of the possibility of adding to the animals' labor?

ARNOLD: The animals are very used to having people around, to having farmhands around. But we were only there, you know, throughout four years, I don't know how many days a year. So we weren't there all the time, but rather sporadically. But I was always very clear that the animals were able to respond to us being there. So we allowed them to show it, even if they didn't like it. Luma, for instance, head-butted the camera when she was not happy with something. I tried to be honest about our presence. Really.

NOTEBOOK: Truthfulness with animal representation sometimes bears the possibility of aestheticising them. Luma and all the cows and calves are really beautiful, but none of them are that kind of ad-style photogenic or of a prestigious breed. Many animal films cast specific breeds such as Jersey or Guernsey but there’s something way more honest about Cow. How did you achieve it?

ARNOLD: I just tried to be as honest as possible with what we found. I knew that the film would not always be easy to watch and I also knew that there would be beauty. As in all of life, there is always ugliness and beauty and I tried to show both those things. I think she is generally a very beautiful animal. So her beauty is always there, no matter what happens to her. For me, it was always very clear that her sort of spirit and her pure sort of presence was always beautiful. But then, of course, some things are difficult, you know, in her existence. And I wanted to show both those things, both the ugly and the beauty.

NOTEBOOK: And you kept a similar balance in the rhythm as well! At first, it seems we are introduced to certain parts of it, such as birth, mating, feeding, milking, checkups. Soon, these events become regular occurrences. How did you work with the editors to make sure to stray from only showcasing the more spectacular parts of these animal lives while building a narrative?

ARNOLD: I think that when you go to the farm often, you see those things—I mean, giving birth is very much part of a dairy cow's existence. So without her giving birth, then it’s like she doesn't have an existence because basically, if she doesn't give birth, and she doesn't give milk, she's of no use to that industry, to that farm. So usually a cow that can't give birth or doesn't produce milk will go to the slaughterhouse, or will get sold. So that's what their lives are, getting pregnant, being pregnant, giving birth, giving milk, and that's the cycle of their lives. So I feel like I mean, what you said is very interesting, because those things are dramatic on their own, but it’s still part of the daily routine. And I was very aware of that. So I tried to balance it out between showing you her everyday existence with some of the more dramatic things. But the dramatic things that happen are also very regulated.


NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the milking sequence, the presence of pop music during them has been referred to as “needle drops” by some but I think the songs acquire a different function every time we hear them, especially when accumulated and repeated. Did you at any point consider dispensing with the tunes if they were too assertive?

ARNOLD: The music was very much part of the cowsheds. So they had pop radio on all the time and I made a rule of it myself that whenever we’re in the cow shed, there's music. So I think I've used the music in ways that are significant, but I've also used it in their regular everyday life too, as it exists. And I think you don't hear it outside of the cowshed, it's when they're going in for milking and out. That's always where the music is. So I kept that kind of truth with it. And that sometimes falls on significant moments and sometimes it falls on everyday moments. So I think maybe the needle drop thing is something I'm guilty of here or there but not all the time.

NOTEBOOK: What about the mating scene? There's a significant added effect with the song, Kali Uchis and Jorja Smith’s “Tyrant,” that is playing in the background and the fireworks…

ARNOLD: The fireworks were there. And I think I'm being very cheeky in that scene, actually. And I allowed myself to be cheeky, because I am cheeky. And I don't shy away from being cheeky.

NOTEBOOK: While allowing yourself such a work process, were there any dimensions of what animal life is to you that were challenged, or maybe changed by the shooting of the film over the course of the years?

ARNOLD: I've always had a real interest in animals. And I've always had relationships with animals, as well as  a very significant relationship with nature since I was a kid. So for me, really was, you know, I was really trying to show the audience a sentient creature, to witness her sentience, to see her aliveness. And if I'm surprised by anything, it's quite that she was truly, truly, truly, sentient.

NOTEBOOK: And if I should flip the question around, was there anything about Cow that revealed to you something specific about filmmaking as a practice?

ARNOLD: I really enjoyed the kind of quietness of making a film about a cow with just a few people, there was something rather beautiful about that. You know, normally, when I'm making drama films, there's a lot more people and it's an army, and you have to negotiate more. And that can be fantastic and great fun. But there was something very peaceful and quiet about making Cow because there were just a handful of us and sometimes just one or two of us. And I quite liked that.

NOTEBOOK: Would you say that it had something to do with relinquishing control in some way over the subject, a nonhuman animal instead of humans?

ARNOLD: I don't think in drama I'm in control, I think I’m in a relationship with a lot of people or trying to achieve something. I feel like my enjoyment of making drama is that you're working with a whole load of really great people, and that you all get to solve challenges on a daily basis together. And you all figure out how to do it together. That to me is not about control, it's about working with amazing people. So I don't think I was relinquishing control, I was enjoying the peace and quiet, which is less challenging in a way because it's more straightforward and simple. There's not so many complicated problems to solve. And also, the thing is unraveling in front of you. So you just allow it to be. On some level, you don't know what's going to be coming in, you don't you can just allow yourself to kind of go with the day, however it unfolds, and you can't force it in any way. Maybe in a way that is about control because if I've written a script, that's sort of something that I'm trying to direct towards a certain way. With this one, there wasn’t a script. And you really are just letting things unfold. There’s something lovely about that.

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