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HOLY COW: New documentary transforms cows from ‘methane machines’ to sentient beings

Cow portrays, in intimate and graphic detail, the mundane cruelties of eating cows and their byproducts. It presents an alternative vision of cows, by seeing them as individuals.

CATHERINE OLIVER: After 90 grueling minutes, Luma — the bovine star of Andrea Arnold’s new documentary Cow — is led alone down a misty path to an empty barn. There, a bucket filled with food is placed down for her before a farmer walks onto the screen and, without fanfare, shoots her. In an empty cinema, my gaze is locked with Luma’s as she takes her final breath. Filmed over four years on a British dairy farm, Cow has been described as “life changing… beautiful and brutal.” But Arnold insists she has no activist agenda to impart. Rather, she hopes to explore what it might mean for Luma — a farmed animal — to be truly seen.

The documentary follows in the footsteps of Victor Kossakovsky’s award-winning Gunda, which chronicles the daily life of a pig from the birth of her piglets to the moment they are hauled away in a tractor. Arnold, like Kossakovsky, brought the camera to the eye-level of the animals, pushing the human workers who oversee Luma the cow’s life into the background.

Cows are often on the minds and lips of environmentalists as monstrous methane emitters who are destroying the climate. What makes Cow so unique is that in telling the story of Luma as an individual, her agency and resistance to her circumstances take center stage, challenging these dominant narratives of cows as an abstract mass of flatulence…

At COP26, the most recent UN climate change conference in Glasgow, campaigners protested the absence of livestock farming on the agenda, despite around 20 percent of global emissions coming from agriculture and associated industries. The Executive Director of the Human Society, Claire Bass, called this ignorance the “cow in the room,” with methane from cows accounting for about a third of global agricultural emissions…

The science shows that intensive agriculture is a big problem: for the environment; for human and public health; and especially for the animals. Despite some scientists arguing that not all cows are created equal, and that smaller herds or higher-quality food could “fix” the food system, the predicted trajectory of increased meat consumption, especially in low- and middle-income countries, is going to rely even more heavily on intensive farming…

However, what is rarely present in these discussions are the cows themselves, whose quality of life is devastatingly portrayed in Cow. Environmentalists frame cows in numbers, percentages, and weight contributions to methane emissions, but Andrea Arnold presents an alternative vision of cows, by seeing them as individuals. Cow portrays, in intimate and graphic detail, the mundane cruelties of eating cows and their byproducts, dispelling any lingering myths of laughing cows ambling over rolling green fields.

About an hour into the film, after the calf we saw Luma birth in the opening scene has long gone, the vet confirms that Luma is pregnant again. This time around, the audience knows what is coming. When the farmer comes to take the second calf away from Luma so that she can be hooked up to the milking machine again, her swollen udders wobble as she tries to block her calf from the farmer.

“Has she always been this bad—overprotective?” we hear Arnold ask. No, the farmer says, but now that she is having her sixth calf, she knows what is coming, and is desperately trying to prevent it by pushing back against the human.

Cow doesn’t just shine a light on the dairy industry; it forces audiences to recognize that the animals that we talk about in the abstract have real desires, feel pain, and resist their circumstances. The agency afforded to farmed animals in this new generation of animal documentary-making doesn’t just tell a story, it pushes back against totalizing narratives that ignore these individuals.

Cow shows how dominant environmental narratives seeking to “fix” cows to save the world ignore the larger problems with the animal food system, not least its built-in cruelty. Anything short of veganism will continue to see cows like Luma suffer. Ultimately, the current food system is unsustainable for not just the environment, but for the sentient animals like Luma who are conscripted into it. SOURCE…


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