Ever wonder why you never see documentaries about dairy cows?
The premise here is simple. We follow the lives of two dairy cows on a farm in England; a mother and her calf.
Directed by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) “Cow” doesn’t contain much talking throughout (other than some background conversations from the humans who work the farm) and would be considered a silent film; though the chorus of moos as baby cows are taken away from their mothers after the birthing process is deafening.
The camera work is unflinching as well as astounding, as throughout my viewing I repeatedly asked myself how access to such abuse was allowed to be filmed by the farm in question. For the most part this documentary consists of handheld close-ups of everything from the birth of a cow, to the eyes of the mother cow as she frantically looks for her young after its removal, to the udders of a cow as milking machines are hooked-up to them for hours at a time.
The film is not relentless in the way you may think. Arnold breaks up the scenes of abuse with a few scenes of respite, where cows are eventually allowed to graze in an open field and gallop around a bit. The direction during these scenes work to reinforce that what we are seeing is a living, breathing, sentient creature. We get a scene of our main cow staring off into the horizon and then up into the sky and then curling up on the grass and taking a nap. And then inevitably, she is transferred back into her holding area where we follow her as she makes her daily walk back and forth from holding pen to milking pen, as radio pop hits play in the background; undoubtedly for the workers.
We then get scenes of human males sticking their arms into her vagina over and over again, as they conduct inspections prior to insemination. Most of this in unbelievably hard to watch. “Cow” not only shows the physical toll this process takes on these cows, but also displays the slow spiritual death that occurs within these animals as they are used and abused for years until they are no longer viable.
Final Thought: The animal rights films which usually get a lot of exposure are the larger Netflix documentaries, where we are witness to mass animal genocide. These films come with stats and are quite important to the movement. But there is a place for smaller movies like “Cow” and “Gunda”. Documentaries which follow a few animals at a time, in this same world, under these same conditions, but allowing audiences to form a bond and empathize with the individual a bit better. The simple fact is all dairy cows are treated as depicted in this film; if not worse. They are inseminated. After they give birth, their calf is taken away from them and bottle fed. The mother cow is then hooked up to a machine and milked for human consumption. Then cows are inseminated again and the process starts all over again until they can no longer produce milk or their bodies break down so much that they can no longer stand. What Arnold does here is allow for this empathy to occur by showing us every part of this process.
If you’ve gotten this far into my review you are probably sympathetic towards the plight of dairy cows already. You probably already are in agreement that these are sentient creatures and should not be treated in this manner. But after watching “Cow”, it’s clear that Arnold’s thesis goes a bit further. She put it in our faces that there is a species of female whose abuse is championed for profit. With this film she makes the claim that the abuse of cows in the dairy industry is a feminist issue on par with any other feminist issue in the world today.
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