When Luma, the bovine heroine of the documentary Cow, acts defensively with the wranglers who have come to feed her newborn with a plastic bottle, one of them explains that she wasn’t always this way: “old age, she’s got protective.” As the film follows the dairy cow over the course of four years, it becomes clear (though not to the people exploiting her) that age has little to do with Luma’s attitude. The cycle of birthing and losing her calves in an unfeeling environment has rendered her distrustful, anxious, and perpetually heartbroken.
Ascribing such feelings to a cow may seem like anthropomorphism, a lazy way of arguing for the rights of animals by projecting human emotions onto them. But director Andrea Arnold understands that such framing is ultimately ineffective, reducing animals to sub-humans. She and cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk try to share Luma’s actual perspective, paying close attention to what she is watching or doing, allowing the facts of her everyday life to speak for themselves. When she doesn’t touch her food after her fifth calf is taken from her, while all the other cows eat voraciously, the connection is obvious. The same goes for her endless mooing as she looks toward the boxes where the young are kept.
Arnold’s cinema has always been tactile and alive to nature. Beyond relaying Luma’s visual experience, the director focuses on her sensations in the harsh environment of the farm, centering the animal’s manipulated body. There are close-ups of Luma’s feet as she is pushed to perilously walk onto wooden planks to get tubes attached to her udders. The film also translates the calves’ brutal awakening to the world through their senses, making evident how against nature and unintuitive their treatment is; once separated from her mother, Luma’s calf struggles to suckle on a plastic teat.
The focus on both Luma and her progeny allows the film to tell a dairy cow’s entire story, and to reveal how the end of that life is already present in its beginning. Luma and her calf’s paths almost cross when the herd is taken to a field. As Luma and her baby try to find each other, they also experience the natural world. For the calf, it’s a moment of reconnection and discovery as she learns to graze, and Arnold highlights how she feels the fresh grass with tight and colorful framing. But Luma seems detached from these pleasures, standing still and staring at the sky. She knows something the calf doesn’t.
Through simple attention, Cow makes evident that animals feel everything inflicted upon them, and that human justifications for exploiting them are solely based on denial and convenience. Even more disturbingly, our detachment from other species has reached such a point that we need a film to remind us of this fact. Arnold seems to argue not only for the rights of dairy cows, but also for those of all creatures whom humans have denied interiority and freedom for so long. She asks us to recognize that what we have deemed “human” characteristics are often just signs of being alive.
Cow opens in theaters and on demand April 8.
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