MOVIE OF THE WEEK April 8, 2022: COW

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It’s easy to look at a black-and-white dairy cow and imagine rolling green pastures, picturesque farmhouses, and buckets of frothy fresh milk. In other words, the picture book version of bovine life. The reality is quite different. A fly-on-the-wall (or fly-on-the-haunch, actually) look at the day-to-day life of a cow on a dairy farm in Kent, England, director Andrea Arnold’s unflinching documentary Cow captures that reality in a way that’s both moving and meditative.

Arnold eschews voice-over narration, letting the intimate images captured by talented cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk tell the story of a cow named Luma as she gives birth to a calf, gets checked over by vets, yields the contents of her bulging udders to an efficient milking machine, and runs with her herd. Ultimately, she goes where the dairy’s humans want her to and does what they want her to do, with no option to wander or follow her own free will.

Is it a bad existence? Definitely not entirely, as Luma gets plenty of food, warm shelter, and someone to care for her physical needs. But it’s not an easy one, either. Anyone who’s ever nursed a baby will wince in sympathy at seeing the cows’ udders engorged with milk that no calf is there to drink, and anyone with a heart will feel it breaking a little when Luma lows for the baby she’s been separated from. And then there’s the gut-punch jolt of the movie’s final scene.

It all comes together, as Arnold said in her director’s statement, “To consider cows. To move us closer to them. To see both their beauty and the challenge of their lives. Not in a romantic way but in a real way.” These animals, so long domesticated by humans that we tend to view them almost entirely in terms of their relationship to us and our needs, are worth that consideration, Cow argues — and after watching Arnold’s honest, beautifully executed film, it’s hard to imagine not agreeing. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Loren King Andrea Arnold’s bracing documentary may take time to pull some viewers into the Fred Wiseman-like immersion on an English cattle farm. But as cows are routinely milked, handled, herded into one pen after another, across mud-soaked floors and under buzzing bright lights, a rhythm sets in. The routine is the point. These are service animals; the unnamed humans who brusquely command them (“c’mon, girlie”) and corral them are just doing the day in, day out business of taking from them until there is nothing left to take. Read full review.

Leslie Combemale Incredibly well-shot by cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk, Andrea Arnold’s documentary is beautiful but tortuous to those who already know the sad, brutal life of a dairy cow in the modern world. By following gentle bovine subject Luna and her experience at the hands of humans, Arnold straddles the natural world and the human disruption and manipulation of it. Arnold herself said she wanted audiences to “receive it however people want to receive it”. I’ll just say I had a pet cow as a kid, and I don’t eat beef or dairy for a reason. It’s an important film, and every moment of it is heartbreaking.

Nell Minow: By keeping the focus on the title bovines, Andrea Arnold and her remarkable DP Magda Kowalczyk understand that the true subject of the film is the barely seen humans. We may hear only indistinct voices and chillingly upbeat music the farm workers play (not clear whether it is intended to soothe the cows or themselves) and mostly glimpse only their hands, but every part of the environment is for their comfort and efficiency, not the living creatures they are responsible for. The film is a meditation on “civilization.”

Pam Grady: The real mystery of Andrea Arnold’s documentary that follows the life of a single dairy cow is exactly what the farmers that allowed her access were thinking. Did they honestly think they would somehow come off looking good? Quite the opposite, this is the type of film that will create vegans and, if enough people see it, calls for reform. There is a lot of repetition and vertigo-inducing camerawork as Arnold follows Luna through the births of two calves and the daily grind of life as a milk producer in a factory setting. The occasional forays into open fields suggest a life that might have been, but far more often Luna and the other cows are penned up inside and left to fester in the muck—that’s when they are not being led to machines for mechanical milking. Calves are separated from their mothers soon after birth. And those things are not even the worst of it in Cow‘s depiction of animal cruelty. This is an enraging work that underlines just how far from nurture and nature factory farms reside.

Jennifer Merin Andrea Arnold’s remarkably intimate documentary is a moment to moment purely observational chronicle of the daily life of two females of an animal species other than our own: cows. The bovines’ slow-paced story is an invitation to meditation, and we humans may actually have something to learn not only about, but also from them. Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk’s absolutely stunning up-close-and-personal camerawork (how in the world did she ever get those shots!?) and brilliant editing by Nicholas Chauderuge, Rebecca Lloyd and Jacob Secher Schulsinger make this uniquely enthralling documentary a masterpiece. The film leads to a very important and moving contemplation about how other creatures experience their life when it is controlled by the human species.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Cow is a remarkably intimate and powerful documentary from award-winning English filmmaker Andrea Arnold. With no narration, the film follows a British dairy cow’s life of giving birth, lactating into an automatic milking machine, and waiting to breed and repeat the cycle again. Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk provides remarkable footage of the titular cow Luma, while the attendant farm staff are bit supporting players who herd, feed, and attach her to the machines. According to PETA, dairy cows have a life expectancy of nearly 20 years but only live 4-6 years on dairy farms. But that’s not a statistic Arnold shares, nor does she have to, because the straightforward, up-close coverage of Luma’s life speaks for itself. Arnold isn’t overtly accusatory – the farmers aren’t abusive or neglectful – but it’s clear that this film has a message for viewers who think dairy farming is less problematic than the meat industry.

Liz Whittemore Maternal instinct makes Andrea Arnold’s first feature documentary doubly challenging to watch, and that is most certainly the point. Cow takes the audience on an intimate journey alongside a dairy cow named Luma. Be prepared for your view of the bovine to drastically change. Cow is a shocking film that might turn you into an animal rights advocate. Read full review.

Cate Marquis Andrea Arnold’s documentary Cow is an un-narrated, year-in-the-life look at a diary cow on a British family dairy farm. Starting with the birth of a calf, the documentary follows a single dairy cow, and sometimes that calf, through the course of what appears to be about a year. The documentary is basically told from the cow’s point of view, and not only does it not pretty things up but makes it a point to pull no punches in depicting the cow’s life. The documentary has a strong, if unspoken, opinion, and those who have never visited a working farm, or delved much into how food is produced, may be shocked by some of it. But there are also idyllic scenes on pasture, so it is worth noting that there more humane ways to do this (and worse ways, as seen on factory farms) than we see in this documentary, and to maximize that time on pasture, organic family farms are the better choice.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Cow

Director: Andrea Arnold

Release Date: April 8, 2022

Running Time: 94 minutes

Language: English (and Bovine)

Screenwriter: Observational documentary

Distribution Company: IFC Films

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).