In the fields, one sees them, wide in grass or grazing peacefully. Large placid animals which one believes to know because they are livestock. Lions, gorillas, bear have all our attention, but did one ever really look at cows? Emmanuel Gras does with his meditative documentary about the secret lives of cows, Bovines. Get to know the French filmmaker as he sat down with Rooftop Films to talk about his latest film.
Rooftop Films: Bovines is a beautifully pastoral and poetic film, with a pace described as being dictated by its subjects. How did you come to choose the often overlooked bovine as your subject?
Emmanuel Gras: I had the idea of the film based off a very simple desire: filming animals and making an “animal film”. Not a film about animals but a film where animals could be real subjects and not objects of human explanation. Because humans are also animals, I think we have a connection with them which is not intellectual but sensitive.
I wanted to make a film where humans could be at the same level of animals and not above them.
After that, I realized that all the animal documentary were about wild ones. The animals are always shown for their function (producer of meat, milk, eggs…) and never as “real animals” with their own existence, their own life, their own history.
The cows are, for me, the best representation of those animals because they are one with humanity for centuries. So it was natural to make a film about them.
There is other reason but I will tell it later.
RF: You have described your film as being “in a world between civilization and savagery”. It is true that many of the world’s bovines do not live in such open conditions as those portrayed. How did you go about selecting a location, or herd, for shooting?
EG: When I said this I was talking about the beginning of the film: it’s daybreak, you see a barrier which looks abandoned, you hear mooing and cows appears far away as if they were wild animals. I wanted this introduction because the film is always between this frontier: the nature looks wild but there are barriers, the cattle has his own life without men but they are protected from predators, they are fed and they are killed by men.
I wanted to begin by showing the cows without men, without the breeding issue to remember to the spectators that they are animals before being cattle.
There are two different kinds of breeding for cows: for milk and for meat. The cows bred for milk are always in contact with human, never alone, but in France, the cows for meat are often alone, outside like what you can see in the film. I wanted to show cattle but cattle that has the possibility of a life apart.
RF: The film’s natural setting provides a beautifully ambient soundtrack, and proves more effective than music could be in creating a relatable world for your bovine subjects to inhabit. Similarly, the lack of narration (or human voices, for that matter) lends the viewer towards humanizing their behaviors. Was this something that you planned from the get go, or a more natural progression?
EG: The choice of not using music or narration was at the beginning of the project. I did not want any human artifact, but to throw the viewers into a natural world, into the universe of the animals, to place them in the position of the cattle.
But I don’t agree it humanize the animal. I think there is two bad ways of thinking about the animal : one is to consider them as machines only guided by instinct and the other is to interpret their behavior with only our human emotions. I think there is a big difference between human and animals, and also between different species of animals. Each one of them thinks and feels, have emotions but it’s their own way of feeling and thinking. We can’t be totally in their skin. We can try to feel what they feel with our animal part. In my film I wanted to play with anthropomorphism: sometimes we think we understand their behavior, sometimes they look like totally strangers.
The cows are very interesting for that: they are so different from us, humans, they are so slow, so placid, that we are obliged to see this difference between us and them. It would not be the same thing with dogs for example. Cows are a very good support for projections, our imagination is free. That’s why they are so cinematographic.
RF: The film contains a lot of beautiful imagery of the animals (un)natural habitat. Did the setting have an impact on the style of the film?
I took a long time to find the right location. I wanted landscape with relief for the aesthetic of the film. I did know the film could be monotone if, in the picture, there was no graphical surprise. On a flat landscape, you don’t have so many choices for the frame.
Also I wanted little fields : I wanted a natural look that could look a little bit wild but where you can feel the human presence everywhere.
RF: Your opening shot gives a prudent and poetic introduction to the film’s stylistic quality. A cow approaches the camera and seems to look dead on into the lens. The way that he calls out, then returns to staring forward, feels as much like an opening monologue as there could be in this sort of work. How did you happen to get this cow to look into the camera, and how many takes did he ask for? (Just kidding, sort of!)
EG: The cow of the introduction was mooing for more than half an hour like that. The shot is very long, I followed her for more than ten minutes and the end she came to me. I don’t know why. But I thought t was a good introduction for the film: an animal expressing herself very strongly but we don’t know what she is expressing! It put the viewer in a questioning position and not in an answering position. And all the film is questioning, not answering.
Also this look that she gave to us is the beginning of the relationship. I was a human observing the animals and the animals also observe me. For the viewer, it’s strange to be observed by an animal: for them, are we human, another animal, someone who looks like their famer, are we a danger… They seems to be interrogative. The question is on both sides.
RF: What are your future plans for the film?
EG: The film has been showing in movie theater in France since February. I can tell it’s quiet a success if I consider the radicality of the project and the place of documentary in cinema. People look very happy to find a film that makes them feel sensations they are not used to having. All my film is about sensations, the intellectual part, about the breeding comes after. I have a lot of discussion about this, is breeding possible without cruelty, is it an exchange between man and animal or just a slavery for the animals… I travel a lot in France with debates like this and it’s quiet interesting to show it in rural area where people don’t go to much in cinema.
Now I hope the film will be shown in other countries but we don’t have distributors for the moment. Fortunately festivals like yours do exist !!!