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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Andrea Arnold on Cow

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Over the course of last year I interviewed over 50 women in film, from cinematographers to producers to writer/directors for my column Female Filmmakers in Focus. I’m so happy to continue this work at RogerEbert.com. I could not have asked for a better first guest for this new feature than the acclaimed Andrea Arnold, whose work not only means so much to me, but who has often been cited as influential on so many of the women I’ve interviewed. 

A singular talent, Andrea Arnold has made her career making films about working class women, from her breakout dramatic thriller “Red Road” to the coming-of-age classic “Fish Tank” to the epic road movie “American Honey.” Her characters are often free spirits trying to make their way in a cold, chaotic world. Economic circumstances factor heavily in the ways in which they can seek freedom and happiness. How then did Arnold return to cinema after a five-year gap, and a slight detour directing episodes of television, with a bittersweet documentary about the life of a dairy cow named Luma? 

After making its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, “Cow” is finally opening in select theaters and on demand this Friday, April 8. RogerEbert.com spoke to Arnold over Zoom about the origins of the documentary, the part humans play in nature, and the profound feeling of being seen by a film. 

How did you first come across Luma and decide to make this documentary about this specific cow?

Once I decided that we were going to make a film about a cow, because I wasn’t sure which animal we would do. At first I thought about a pig. I thought about a chicken; chicken lives in factory farms are about 90 days. So I thought well, that’d be a short shoot, in terms of filming, and they’re very characterful chickens. So I thought that would be quite good. But then I thought about dairy cows. It felt very powerful because of the whole feminine aspect to it as well. I thought that added another layer of something really interesting. Once I decided that, I realized that that’s connected to everything else I’ve ever done. You think all of your decisions are new and unconscious, but actually, you’re just doing the same things. We decided on the dairy cow and then we had to find a farm close to London, because we had to be going back and forth a lot. There were only a certain number of farms that fit the bill. 

Then we found the farm and I asked them about their cows. We were looking for a cow that was pregnant, because I wanted to start with a birth. They mentioned Luma, I think fairly early on, and said that she was a very feisty cow. I loved the idea of that because I thought that meant she definitely would have some personality. I thought it’s an interesting situation to have a face to the cow. Also, because their lives are very managed, I became fascinated with all the gates and the locks on the doors this way and the alleyways that way, and the fences. Because their lives are entirely managed, the idea there was a feisty cow in that managed situation was appealing to me. She had this very beautiful head, this white head with a little eyeliner. To me she just was a beautiful looking cow. Her head felt very visually important, so we would see her easily. So both her looks and personality got the job, basically.

You mentioned how the film is similar to your previous work. When I was watching it and read in the press notes about Luma’s constant birthing and milking, it made me think of your short film “Milk,” and the grief that that mother went through. Could expand a little bit on the thematics that you think are in all of your films?

That’s quite hard, because it’s quite personal. Interestingly, I think when I make anything, I sometimes don’t know what I’m getting at and then it becomes obvious and you go oh, okay. So in a way, what I said to you just now about the dairy cow and stuff is definitely connected to “Milk,” I think for sure. Mothers and babies. But I find it really hard to talk about in a broader way, actually. You’ll have to make the connections.

That’s fair. You mentioned that a chicken’s life is 90 days. How long did you spend with Luma and how did you decide what aspects of her life you wanted to include in the doc?

We spent about three years filming with Luma. We filmed her calf after Luma died a bit longer, too. So we probably filmed Luma for about three years and her calf for about four years. So four years in total filming, but not loads of days a year. Maybe 30 days a year. We were regularly going back. We would film all day because dairy cows are basically working animals. Their job is to give milk, so they’re either pregnant, or giving birth, or giving milk, or they’re being made pregnant, you know, balls and insemination and stuff. So they have a cycle of maternal existence, that is basically pregnancy, sex, pregnancy, milking. They can give birth to maybe 11 to 12 calves. They live this life of eternal maternal existence. There’s a lot of things in that existence that are regular things that they go through. We went anytime that she was mating with a bull or getting inseminated or she’s seeing the vet or she’s giving birth. Those kinds of things. We went to all those days, and then we would also go to days that were just regular days so that we would get to see her regular life on a regular day. We’d go shoot a whole milking day and just get there early and just see her day. In the summer that involved being outside and in the winter inside.

In your director’s statement, you use the phrase “we are nature” and discuss the disconnect you felt when you moved to London. How did you infuse that into the way that you filmed this documentary?

Yeah, when I flipped the jellyfish back. They said, “It’s nature’s way” and said “I’m nature too!”

I would have done the same thing. 

I thought, What are you talking about? We’re nature too. We’re not separate from nature. I’ve been in London a long time now and I’m lucky I live near a park and I do have a bit of connection to nature. But that wilder connection I had as a kid definitely felt like it had gone away. And I was always thinking about how we live this kind of separate life from all the things that we use. Once upon a time, we were like farmers. We used to live with the animals. So we would have a real sense of what was going on with them. You would have a sense of how they lived and what they needed and your relationship to them and all these things. Whereas now all those things are done over there. They’re all done over there, someone else does them for us, and we don’t live alongside animals in that same way anymore. 

I’m just reading this book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. I’m at the beginning of it, but I’m kind of fascinated with what he’s saying. He says that we are living this digital life, and the other thing that’s happening is we’re having lots of human contact. We’re around lots of humans all the time and lots of digital humans. But in order for you to understand your humanity, your humaneness, it’s very good for you to be out in the world where you connect with other things that are not human. If you meet an octopus, you notice the octopus has eight legs, but you have two, and what does that mean about what you are compared with the octopus? He also writes about our sensual relationship with nature. Like when we get rained on we smell things or you touch things that are different from you. That sort of sensual relationship with our world is disappearing. I feel like there’s something really desperately important about this. I feel like I don’t know how to bring it back or how to live more like that.

At the end of “American Honey” I was desperate for them all to have that. I just thought, What am I gonna do? How do I end that? How do I end with these kids? Like, what do I want for these kids? I thought I really wanted them to all go live in the woods and make furniture and connect with each other and connect with nature. I thought there’s something really fundamental about this desire, to be back in touch with all the things in the world that we are reliant on and live next to, and are very much part of the world. We’re all separating into cities, and we’ve just got loads of humans around and now the smells are very limited. I mean, of course, we get smells, but you don’t get as many smells as if you’re out in nature. We keep insects out of our houses. I just feel like this is all this is all matters, it all matters, I feel it really deeply.

I grew up in the country as well. My neighbors kept pigs and I lived near the auction yard. And I remember as a kid, really understanding where food came from and as I’ve gotten older and lived in the city, it’s definitely falling away. Watching this documentary made me really think a lot more about it. I love cream in my coffee, but now I’m thinking about the cow that produces the cream. And I’m never not gonna think about that now because of this documentary, so I thought that was really powerful. Coming off this idea of connection, I thought it was fascinating that you keep the farmworkers a bit on the side. You see hands occasionally and hear voices talking. How did you decide to keep the camera mostly focused on Luma and the humans distantly in the background?

I really wanted to show her consciousness. We have animals, we use their meat and the leather and the bones. We use every part of them for something or other. So their physical self, we very much know about. But what about this other side of them, which is their invisible side? Their thoughts and their feelings? Their soul? We could argue about what the soul is, or whatever, but for me, it’s certainly their aliveness, what they’re feeling, their thinking, their will, their desire to do something or not do something. All those invisible parts of something living. I wanted to try to show that. 

The way for me to show that was through her eyes. Early on I thought we’d need to keep the camera head on with her eyes, because that’s how we’re going to see this invisible part. Once I decided that, that meant if a person came in, we were not going to focus on them, we were going to focus on her. By keeping the camera on her head, you can see even when she’s having things done to her, you get a real sense of how she feels about some of those things. If I cut to a shot of the person and just covered it in a normal way, you wouldn’t have got that so much. You could probably cut it together and include that but I think it would have put the emphasis somewhere else. I was really trying to show you her, her aliveness and the best way to do that was with the eyes. That people took a backseat. That for me was fine. I tried to be really respectful of them, as well within that. To give them room within that. But I tried to put her and her aliveness as the main focus.

She really was a feisty cow. She had a lot to say. That one scene where she’s just mooing for what feels like a whole minute right at the camera. I wish I could know exactly what she was saying because I know she was saying something.

That was just after she was taken for milking when a calf was just born. I don’t know what she’s saying either. But it felt like she was definitely trying to communicate something. She had something to say. 

I was also really fascinated with the way the music was incorporated. Do they play music for the cows?

They often had the radio on in the cow shed. There’s a lot of people working in the cow shed and I think it’s mostly for the people who have very long days and work incredibly hard. They have pop radio on in the cow shed. The pop radio is all full of these songs that are about longing and desire and love and and it all felt very poignant. I thought okay, that’s really interesting that they’re like that. That’s the music playing. So I used that music because that’s what the cows hear and it’s also poignant in the situation. In order to do the sound properly and also to clear music, we had to add it all back in afterwards. So some of the songs that are used were really playing. But I also picked some of it that were along the lines of what was there.

The ending is very sudden and emotional. Did you always know that’s how you were going to end Luma’s story?

No, I found the ending in the edit. I planned to end on a birth actually, but what we filmed didn’t really work. We discovered this ending in the edit, and it felt right. I don’t know how else you end something like that. 

I knew the ending had made people cry but I somehow wasn’t expecting that. 

People were shocked, actually. And I’m like, what did you think was gonna happen? 

This past year I’ve interviewed over 50 female filmmakers and I ask most of them what filmmakers inspire them and your name comes up a lot. I was wondering what filmmakers inspire you?

I just met Céline Sciamma, who is the most fantastic person. I love her and I love her films. So currently, I really love her. I really love Jane Campion. I love Lynne Ramsay. Gosh, there’s so many. I feel like there’s so many. 

I had a very interesting experience one time going to, I think it was with my short film “Wasp,” I didn’t think about being female very much, I was just trying to be a filmmaker, and I got asked to go to Créteil. It was the first time I’d been to a purely women’s film festival. I had such an incredible time because every single film was made by a woman. I don’t remember ever going to a film festival and crying so much. So many films connected with me on a deeper level. It suddenly made me realize how little I was spoken to in the world of film as a woman. It was a huge revelation, like a massive revelation. I hadn’t really even thought about it very much. This was quite a long time ago, the early 2000s. It was incredible to me because I went for the whole festival and I cried so much. I cried a load because every single film was speaking to me. I mean, probably not every, but loads were and it was such a shocking thing. From then on I started looking when I went to a festival at how many films were by women and I used to count the difference, and there would be so many by men. That is changing now.

Yeah, a lot of festivals are trying to program as close to 50/50 as they can. And you can see the films by women are often coming out on top, and I bet they always would have if they had just programmed them. It’s really powerful when you start paying attention to what emotions are caused by feeling seen. Just little things in films that make you feel seen. It’s really powerful.

That experience for me was quite profound in a way because when you’re used to something, when we’ve all grown up given what we’re given, you’re not thinking and then suddenly it’s like oh, my God. I was really taken aback by how moved I was by seeing so many films that were speaking to my experience. Things have changed quite a lot now. And I’m happy to see it. When you think about film as a reflection of life, obviously women are a huge part of life, and so are their stories and their feelings about things. 

I’ve always taken a lot of my inspiration from life and I don’t know why that is. When people ask what films do I watch, when you make a film, what’s your inspiration? I usually answer that I don’t like to watch any films because I try not to be influenced by how other films try to be. I look at photography books. When I have an idea for something, and then I start looking at things online that are connected, that actually connects me to it more. I get overstimulated. Does that make sense?

Yeah, I definitely can relate to that feeling. You get really interested in something and spiral into hours and hours of looking at that thing. And then you’re like, where did I start? The internet really allows that side of you to come out in a way that I find fascinating.

Like if I’m writing something and something is inspiring to me that’s connected to it, I kind of can’t contain it. I can’t even describe it. It’s almost like I can’t keep it down. It’s really strange for me though. Like you know how they say your, I don’t mean libido as in sex, but in life force, like your love and your fear bubbles up. Your sort of desire for life. That gets so overstimulated that I almost can’t bear it. I have to manage that a bit. I find that little things help me. I have little things around me all the time that help me. You can’t see down here, but I have a mass of stuff. There’s millions of things. That’s a weird thing I just told you.

“Cow” will be playing in theaters and available on demand on April 8.

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