‘Gunda’: Will Joaquin Phoenix catapult ‘intensely moving’ farm animal documentary to Oscar glory?

Oscar winner and animal rights activist Joaquin Phoenix was so moved by an early screening of documentary filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky’s latest film “Gunda” that he reached out to sign on as an executive producer. Shot in black and white with no dialogue, the film follows the daily life of a pig as she navigates life on a farm, giving birth to a litter of piglets, snorting and rolling around in the mud. If it sounds simplistic, it is, and that’s exactly why critics have been singing the film’s praises since it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

“Gunda” has a perfect 100 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metacritic score of 86, solidifying the Neon production as a serious contender to win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. Jonathan Romney of “Screen Daily” writes, “You don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate the craft and the genuine poetic vision of a film which, though strictly unsentimental, is intensely moving, transfixing and quite genuinely unique.” Eric Kohn of “Indiewire” called it a “slow burn” that “feels like an advancement of the nature documentary form.”

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The affection viewers feel for these animals is captured by long shots into their eyes, as if to give us a glimpse of what they might be thinking. Intentionally non-political, Kossakovsky (who is a vegetarian) made a point to let audiences draw their own conclusions and kept any personal opinions out of the film. In a recent Q&A with Phoenix, the director explained that with equipment of the highest possible quality, he set up cameras and returned to farms across Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom over several months to show the growth of the litter and the pig’s natural instincts as a mother. As supporting characters of sorts, two cows and a one-legged chicken are also seen going about their daily lives on the farm.

The Critics Choice Documentary Awards recently recognized “Gunda” with a nomination for Best Documentary Feature, along with below the line bids for its cinematography, editing and directing. Impressively, Kossakovsky is responsible for all of it. And although it lost the top prize to “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” the Critics Choice Documentary Awards have been wrong more often than right when it comes to the eventual Oscar champ. It’s genuinely a case where it’s an honor just to be nominated. Another important precursor “Gunda” can check off is a nomination from the International Documentary Association, which has included the eventual Oscar winner in its lineup four out of the last seven years.

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