Ear-Tag Cinema: Notes on Andrea Arnold’s Cow, by Dominic O’Key

Cow is a harrowing documentary about the lived reality of a dairy cow. But Arnold’s observational style might ultimately offer an apologia rather than an intervention.

The camera hovers at head height, an animal its object of consideration. We peer into a cow’s eye, a deep black pool like a magic eight ball. The cow, now craning its neck upwards, looks into the clouded sky. Its yellow ear-tag flaps into view: number 201699. Sniffing, exhaling, the cow lowers itself onto the grass below. The camera goes down with the cow towards the dry soil, as if tethered to it.

I am watching Andrea Arnold’s latest film, Cow, an intimate and immediate portrait of bovine life under the conditions of twenty-first century dairy production. It is Arnold’s first documentary feature, reportedly filmed over a four-year period at a dairy farm in Tonbridge, Kent. For its ninety-three minute running length the film tracks the life, labours and – eventually, inevitably – death of a dairy cow, Luma.

Arnold offers the film to the viewer without any form of exposition or contextualisation. Stripped of explanation, language and framing – except for the occasionally overheard calls and commands of farmworkers – the film asks that its audience gives full attention to Luma and her day-to-day life.

In this way Cow is decidedly experiential. And yet the camera, harnessed by cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk, never assumes Luma’s point-of-view. Instead it stays doggedly by her side, shaking and fighting to stay upright amidst the bustling bodies of the barn and the field. We stare into Luma’s eyes. We witness the repetitive cycles of impregnation, birthing and milk production that punctuate her small existence.

Cow can be added to an ever-growing canon of documentary films that attempt, each in their own way, to make sense of contemporary meat-production, of what Tony Weis calls the “meatification” of modern life. At the beginning of the nineteenth-century meat stood only at the peripheries of global diets. But during the mid-twentieth century the industrial-capitalist meat regime began to accelerate. Through the roll-out of major structural, geographical and technological transformations, farms turned into factories, prioritising monocropping methods and the expansion of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) as the most efficient systems for mass-rearing and slaughtering. Large multinational companies began to directly control every stage of the animal’s life-and-death cycle, from its embryonic growth to its rearing, slaughter and post-kill processing and distribution.

Today, meat has shifted towards the centre of consumption habits: most so in the global north, and increasingly so elsewhere. From 1961 to 2010, the global population of animals bred for slaughter shot up from roughly eight to sixty-four billion. Between 1970 and 2008, beef production doubled, poultry increased sixfold and pork tripled. The United Nations expects that total consumption of meat will reach nearly 450 million tonnes per year by 2050, roughly double the amount consumed at the turn of the millennium.

We live, then, within a period of rapidly increasing meat production. But this has brought with it heightening public interest in and hesitancy; it has sparked new waves of political opposition and consumer reluctance.  

It has also prompted many aesthetic works, many of which have trodden a fairly conventional filmic path. Think of exposé documentaries such as Earthlings (2005), Food, Inc (2008) and, more recently, the Netflix hit Cowspiracy (2014), which take up an expository mode in order to spotlight how chickens, sheep, pigs and cows are being manipulated, slaughtered and processed at an ever-growing scale, their entire existence carefully monitored so as to maximise efficiency and profitability. Combining narrative voiceovers, talking-head interviews, statistical visualisations and undercover footage, these documentaries seek to uncover the systemic practices of raising and killing animals that remain largely hidden from public view.

Another type of meat documentary, more knowingly cinematic, jettisons the systemic vision in order to focus on and restore the individuality and personality of the farmed animal. We can frame this generic difference as a cinematic case of telling vs showing. Where Cowspiracy tells the viewer about the production and consumption of animal flesh, works like Cow and last year’s Gunda – the latter shot primarily on a Norwegian pig farm, directed by Viktor Kossakovsky – are more interested in the lived experience of those animals who sit at the heart of such production.

Cow and Gunda aren’t the first films to depict farmed animals in such close proximity. They fit into a longer tradition of largely wordless, storyless films about farming. Short works like Jean Eustache and Jean-Michel Barjol’s Le Cochon (1970), for example, harness a cinéma vérité method in order to track the dismemberment and transfiguration into meat of a pig in a French village. Fredric Wiseman’s Meat (1976) – part of a wider quartet of films about American society’s use of animals in research, tourism and sport – closely tracks the industrialised disassembly line from cow to hamburger, developing Wiseman’s signature observational form in the process. More recently, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s Leviathan (2012) captures the mass trawling of North Atlantic groundfish – cod, hake and pollock – by attaching durable GoPro cameras to industrial nets.

All of these films share the same desire: to look at animals, to show the reality of the lives and deaths of those species that are either bred or caught. Adopting a deliberately strict observational approach, they strive to conjure an immersive, close and authentic cinematic portrayal that reminds the viewer that what they are looking at isn’t something but someone.

Indeed this is Cow’s task too. As Arnold reflected in an  interview with the BFI: “There’s always been this conversation about farm animals, whether or not they’re sentient. I think it’s been very convenient for humans who farm them to think that they’re not, because we use billions of them every year. When I set off, I was wanting to see [Luma’s] consciousness and her aliveness”.

Yet Cow isn’t easily classifiable as a work of animal activism.In fact, Arnold’sobservational approach means that Cow sets out to merely watch what happens, which means neither judging nor intervening. Cow’s aim is simply to show its viewers a being who is alive with their own subjectivity, in possession of their own unique personality. “I wanted to show a non-human consciousness”, Arnold says. “I was intrigued as to whether we would be able to see her consciousness if we followed her long enough.”

Cow aims to capture animal consciousness through its attention to gender, to motherhood: Luma shouts out as she is separated from her calf, echoing the way Gunda the sow whimpers and paces around her den searching for her litter of piglets. The thematic of motherhood smooths both films’ requests that their viewers consider these animals as lively subjects rather than objects, even if their aliveness is gradually eroded by their unrelenting daily labours.

Still image from Arnold, Andrea, dir., Cow (BBC Films, 2021)

This is what Arnold makes us see in Cow – her camera doesn’t look away from the milking, branding and horn burning; it jostles with other cows in the crowded pen to stay by Luma’s side. Across the film we witness how Luma is worked to the limit, her udders so bloated that they drag across the concrete floor, her legs beginning to buckle from the weight. She is suddenly, coldly dispatched.

But let us be clear: Cow isn’t a documentary about maltreatment or abuses within the dairy industry. Cow isn’t set in a factory farm or even a cramped feed lot. Instead, the film takes as its as its backdrop the everyday, normalised practices which characterise the birth-and-death cycles of many farmed cows in the UK. Luma’s body is squeezed of as much value as is physically possible. As the cost-benefit balance to keeping her alive starts to tip in one direction, she is killed.

Cow therefore strives to develop an arresting ethical gaze, one that compels its viewers, if they are indeed moved by what they have witnessed, to question not just the extreme abuses and aberrations of farming but also the ordinary, accepted practices of animal rearing and slaughter – even those practices that are characterised as “humane”.

Yet the film constructs its ethical vision at a cost, as the unidentified farm becomes envisioned as a Manichean world of animal victims and human perpetrators. Farmworkers and vets are only occasionally glimpsed by Arnold’s camera, remaining faceless and nameless throughout. There is nothing here about their conditions of work. There is very little sympathy for them.

Thus Cow – and indeed Gunda too – elides human labour in favour of an exacting empathetic focus on the individual animal. In contrast to earlier observational documentaries like Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949), which represents workers and animals as being jointly exploited by an industrialising capitalist agriculture, Cow sees human farm labourers only as spectres of annihilation who exercise sovereign power.

It is Arnold’s camera that creates this perspective. However her direct style generates an allure of unmediated objectivity that hides its own artifice. There is nothing wrong with the fact that Arnold’s naturalistic footage is clearly constructed, built rather than found. But at no point does Arnold draw attention to her own crafted point of view. The film’s four-year production period is flattened into a continuous present. The viewer is given no insight into the global or local historical changes of human-animal relations. We don’t learn about the film’s own conditions of production (how did Arnold come to choose this farm at this time? Is this farm typical, exemplary or unique, comparatively caring or callous in relation to other UK livestock farms?).

The film therefore disavows its own invention in favour of a myth: that all that it is doing is looking at an animal. A generous reading might understand Cow as a metonymic film: itsplaceless setting a stand-in for industrial farming writ large, its individual cow both irreducibly singular and yet also, at some level, generalisable. But then again the film offers no coordinates or signposts that might help viewers to meaningfully track the similarities and differences between this farm, this cow, and the rest of the industry.

Only the film’s use of music gives us a hint of Arnold’s artifice, as the carefully chosen pop soundtrack conceals itself as diegetic sounds that spontaneously and coincidentally emanate from an in-barn radio. But the film’s song choices are unimaginative, a blunt curation of the real: Garbage’s 1996 single ‘Milk’ being a case in point.

Cow doesn’t trust its audience to see the workings, to peek behind the curtain it has drawn. But it does demand that its viewers make up their own minds. Rejecting didacticism, Arnold’s observational style seems to say: Let the footage speak for itself.

But by doing this Cow ends up pinning its entire ethical intervention on Luma herself. Arnold, by chasing an authenticity of animal experience, wages everything on the experience of one cow. In other words, Cow crafts a way of seeing that, in effect, places the heavy burden of empathy on the very animal it wishes, at some level, to rescue from its captivity. But Cow does not and cannot save Luma. Instead, its final images seem to signal a grateful if pitying acknowledgement of Luma’s service, her sacrifice.

Looked at from one angle Cow could be thought of as a work of direct cinema that encourages a reformist-vegetarian imaginary. But from another angle it looks like little more than a shaky-cam apologia.

Still images from Arnold, Andrea, dir., Cow (BBC Films, 2021)