A pig dozes on a hill of hay, her snout protruding outside the shelter door, her body curled in the dark inside. Birds tweet as the pig snores. A few seconds later, a handful of hamster-size squealers spill out from the pen. This pig wasn’t sleeping at all, but rather giving birth to a dozen piglets. Inside of the sty, the slimy little buggers clamor at their mother’s straw-strewn nipples. They suck as if they are hanging onto life by a thread — because, in fact, they are. 

In another world, many countries over, two mutts battle on a busy street for a bone dropped by a garbage truck. The driver intervenes when he spots the pair from his rearview mirror. “Asshole, why won’t you share?” he scolds at the dog who has hoarded a second one, as pedestrians stroll by with shopping bags and smartphones. 

This spring, two documentaries compel us to recognize the limits — and excess — of human perspective in plumbing the depth of animal life. In fulgent black and white, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda chronicles the experience of a pig raising her piglets on a small, bucolic farm in Norway. Elizabeth Lo’s Stray follows a trio of street dogs in Istanbul, where it is illegal to capture or euthanize the megacity’s free canines, who number over 100,000. “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange,” argued John Berger in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” from his 1980 collection About Looking. “Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”

Zeytin finds shelter in an abandoned building along the Bosphorous in Istanbul, Turkey in Stray, dir. Elizabeth Lo (courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Kossakovsky, a veteran filmmaker, and Lo, debuting with Stray, share the project of looking at animals through the lens of other animals, to the delight of any viewer for whom ontological enthusiasm ranks high. And yet, in doing so, their films probe a sense of alienation both bridged and abetted by the relationship between human and nonhuman animal, albeit in very different ways, and with varying moral implications. 

In Gunda, not one human ever makes an appearance; the closest we get is a tractor that appears abruptly (and somewhat tragically) toward the end. Till then, the lens is intimately fixed on the vicissitudes of animal life: newborn pigs nestled together with Escher-like precision, a one-legged chicken hopping through a sunlit field, an ancient cow swatting away flies with her tail. We behold the slowness of a chicken’s extended claw, testing out unknown grass, an old hen stretching her neck like a villainess, a herd of cows stampeding through a meadow, a swarm of gnats escorting the herd through their open afternoon. Gunda enjoys a decadent mud bath, and one of her brood drinks from the rain as it drops from the roof of its pen. Look closely enough, and the act of a chicken taking a step becomes a thing of majestic beauty.

Still from Gunda, dir. Victor Kossakovsky (courtesy NEON)

Gunda’s animals rule the world — until they don’t, of course. From the wire fence surrounding the farm to the tag piercing Gunda’s right ear, subtle clues alert us to the fact that these animals are human property, including the adorable porcine babies. We are also faced with events that have no clear explanation. Did Gunda just trample that runt on purpose, or was she trying to revive it? To what extent do we make Gunda a story of sentimental nurture, based on our own understanding of tending life? Newborn pigs are cute indeed, but do we, can we, know anything of the experience of suckling nine at once?

Like Kossakovsky, Lo anchors her film’s perspective in animal experience and presumed interiority, inviting us to narrativize the lives of those whose stories escape our sensual-temporal grasp. By placing GPS collars on Zeytin and Nazar, the two adult dogs with whom we spend most of the film, Lo and a Turkish co-producer could discern their whereabouts night to night, but they could not predict what the dogs would do. The camera height mimics their sight lines, resisting anthropocentric looking while inviting us to impose our own motives onto the canine movements. “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog,” reads one of Stray’s intertitles, credited to the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. In aligning the camera with the gaze of the dog, Lo nudges us to see our own human experience as peripheral to that of the dogs we follow. A man interrogates his girlfriend for posting to another man’s Instagram while Zeytin’s eyes wander elsewhere; a tourist curses an apparently unoffended Nazar for pooping in a park. 

Zeytin observes a group of young Syrians who share the streets with her in Istanbul, Turkey in Stray, dir. Elizabeth Lo (courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

If Gunda reveals what animals look like sans conspicuous human presence, Stray explores how abandoned dogs interact with abandoned human animals in a bustling urban center — specifically, a group of homeless Syrian refugee boys whom they befriend. Unlike animal stock raised on a farm for food and resources, the relationship between street dogs and street humans suggests an interdependence that, 45 years ago, Berger claimed is all but extinguished. In the two years that Stray covers, we see how often the plight of the boys and the dogs intersects. If Gunda urges us to consider how humans treat animals, Stray urges us to consider how humans sometimes treat other humans, as poorly as some treat animals or even worse. 

Both films reveal how difficult it is not to narrativize — and, ergo, implicitly romanticize — the lives of other animals who experience a world we can never truly understand. When humans witness suffering, which animals clearly experience, our instinct is to contextualize it. Is not storytelling itself a human ploy to grant meaning to cause and effect? Are extreme closeups of an animal’s face the way we realize their emotional stakes — or our own? Both Stray and Gunda eschew overt storyline, but in its absence viewers will most likely supply one.

Still from Gunda, dir. Victor Kossakovsky (courtesy NEON)

“[Animals] are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge,” writes Berger. “What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” In many ways, any assumption that we know Zeytin and Nazar as protagonists is as foolish as the idea that we can know what Gunda feels when one of her newborns struggles to stand. And yet, when Zeytin joins the city ezan (the Islamic call to worship) at sunset, her notes cling to the air as though praying for all who have ever been troubled or vulnerable. In honoring animal integrity, however mysterious, we can better realize our own.

Stray and Gunda are currently in theaters.

Eileen G’Sell

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...