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.
Director: Andrea Arnold
Release Date: April 8, 2022
Running Time: 94 minutes
Language: English (and Bovine)
Screenwriter: Observational documentary
Distribution Company: IFC Films
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
Edited by Jennifer Merin