“Has she really gotten this bad?” a farm worker asks another, to which he replies, “What do you mean?”; she clarifies, “As in overprotective”. They discuss the animosity of Luma, one of the many cows on their farm, who is protecting her newborn calf. This is number six for her and, with the passing of time, she has become more guarded with her young. Andrea Arnold – whose American Honey won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2016 – makes a documentary that follows the cyclical life of Luma, a British dairy cow.
The film is 90 minutes of video footage of the animals in their not-so-natural habitat. One of the first scenes is a close-up of the birthing of a calf, being pulled with great effort by rope tied around its hooves, wrangled before even fully earth-side. The milking process is also shown, with a contraption that has four suction nozzles, sucking furiously on the mammal’s teats. The sound of a whale crying for its young sent shivers down audiences’ spines in Blackfish, and Cow is no different. Luma’s calls say “where are you?” and “why are they doing this?” as her calf is taken and she is prepared for milking.
Arnold has cemented herself as a key figure in independent cinema, with her coming-of-age drama Fish Tank (set in London flats) and her adaptation of Wuthering Heights. The director excels at capturing what goes unspoken between humans, and that excellence can be extended to animals. It’s not an easy feat to make cattle star in a film when they’re not animated or voiced by a bankable celebrity. However, viewers still get a sense of how the cow is feeling: scared, anxious and angry, and that’s all down to Arnold’s choices. Some scenes feel as though the cameras have been put down, leaving Luma in charge of directing: all the bashes and off-angle shots are included, putting the audience right in the pen with the animals.
Todd Hayne’s The Velvet Underground pushed documentary boundaries, but Arnold abandoned them altogether. If you told any director to make a film with no interviews, a soundtrack that can only be heard through the speakers in a farm stable and an ordinary cow as its subject, they would walk out of the room. This is why she should be seen as one of the most interesting filmmakers of her time, dismantling the rules of cinema, finding new ways to tell stories and leaving audiences in the dark when the film is over, needing to inhale and exhale repeatedly to come back to reality.
Cow is a documentary like no other and a celebrated return for Arnold.
Cow does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Cow here: