‘Vaca’, a documentary by Andrea Arnold presented at Cannes, is an immersive experience that plunges us into the hell of livestock farms, where animals only stop suffering with death
When we think of a cow, the picture of Milka chocolate comes to mind, with bucolic meadows between snowy peaks where cows with cowbells graze serenely. We do not suspect – or rather we do not want to think too much – about what is behind the milk carton that we keep in the fridge. ‘Vaca’ shows it to us without raising its voice or resorting to tremendousism. The bet of the British Andrea Arnold is to put us in the shoes and the long-suffering udders of Luma, a reluctant tenant of a large farm in the south of England.
Presented at the Cannes Festival and the inaugural film at the Seville Festival, ‘Vaca’ comes to our screens in the midst of controversy after the Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, criticized the livestock industries with thousands of animals in the newspaper ‘The Guardian ‘. The European Commission presented this past Tuesday a legislative proposal to toughen environmental criteria with the aim that the macro-farms emit less ammonia and methane; Poultry, pig and beef facilities with more than 100 head are currently jointly responsible for 60% of ammonia emissions and 43% of methane from livestock farming in the European Union.
‘Vaca’ is not a documentary in the style of La 2. There is no narrator, no titles or a voiceover. We witness the birth of a calf whose eye stares at the camera as soon as it comes out of its mother’s womb, as if she were addressing us viewers. Luma licks the creature for a short time, before being pushed away from her side. Later we will see how the calf is dehorned, that is, burning the horns before they sprout with a hot iron so that the cattle crowded into the stables cannot hurt each other or the farmers. The protagonist will have other calves and they will all suffer the same fate.
Luma’s routine takes place as if in an anguished endless loop between the fences and barriers of a stable carpeted with mud, shit and straw. Only in one scene do the cows go outside to eat fresh grass and look at the starry sky at night. Luma is not so much an animal as a factory of fluid and meat. She sucks his milk, checks him out at the vet and unloads a new calf. Arnold sticks the camera to the animal to the point that at times the cow hits the director of photography. The director is more interested in the mooing and breathing of the cattle than the farm employees (we barely see their faces), who do not behave cruelly, but with the mechanical coldness of those who deal with things and not with living beings.
An image of ‘Cow’.
The strategy of the director of ‘Fish Tank’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ consists of humanizing this cow that mooes more than the others, as if she wanted to rebel against her destiny. When the end comes, not because it is expected, it stops being less shocking. Luma is the link in an industrial chain in which there is only room for productivity. In ‘Cow’ the farm is a prison and you can only escape from it with death. Arnold combats the coldness of nature documentaries with flashes of lyricism, like those fireworks in the distant night, or the pop songs that play on the cattle farm, from Garbage to Billie Eilish, which provide the sarcastic counterpoint. ‘Vaca’ is an immersive experience in which we share the anguish of an animal.