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Watch Cow (2021) online

Year: 2021
Time: 1h 34m
Director:Andrea Arnold
Quality: HD
One of the most illuminating documentaries in film history is called Titicut Follies (1967), one of the first and only times a director got under the skin of an institution, which Andrea Arnold manages again with Cow. Follies uncovers the horrendous maltreatment of people at an asylum in Massachusetts. It's remarkable because of the co-operation given to the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. The medical staff at Titicut simply do not have the self awareness or empathy to know that they do wrong and give him the run of the place. In the most jawdropping moment a doctor smoking a cigarette over an anaesthetised patient, lets his fag ash fall into the man's open mouth, and no-one bats an eyelid. Exposés since that time have been rather subdued as most wrongdoers are informed enough to be a completely different person when they know a camera is nearby.

The farmers here simply feel that everything they do is justified (or maybe they crave judgement?), and so they have given Andrea Arnold and her crew the run of the place. Like Wiseman before her Arnold simply points her camera at stuff going on, there are no interviews, no explanatory notes, the camera eye does all the talking. They spend four years focussing mainly on one cow, Luma, her day-to-day experience, and those of her calf. When the calf is announced female I didn't know whether to be relieved or appalled, males are often shot straight away as rearing them to sell on as veal is not economical, whilst the female become part of the dairy herd; which is better, murder or slavery?

Cow is the nightmare of Fritz Lang's Metropolis come true, where persons literally become part of machines. On the farm placid and majestic creatures are cruelly exploited, and then when the economics of keeping them enslaved stops making sense, abruptly murdered. There are indeed Wisemanian moments here, where a farmhand comments that Luma is bad for being protective. "Bad" here meaning that she doesn't do exactly what her enslavers want when they want it ("Fair is foul and foul is fair"); the second farmhand knows a faux pas has been made on camera. The farmers are of that chilling breed of individuals who know what they do is wrong but do it anyway, because there are no repercussions. We can at least say of them that they are not sadists, no-one deliberately harms an animal here for entertainment (although things like this have been videoed on other farms).

Numerous unpleasant scenes include debudding without anaesthetic (to make the slaves more manageable the tissue that grows horns is burned away), Luma refusing to eat after her latest child is abducted and industrial milking apparatus dangling in slurry.

Arnold's treatment feels occasionally tone deaf, Luma is corralled into a pen with a bull to get made pregnant yet again (cows are essentially kept permanently pregnant and have no agency whatsoever), and Arnold feels it's appropriate to edit this in with a firework display, as if something remotely romantic is happening when breeding of slaves occurs. In interviews Arnold has talked about the service that the cows have given us, the problem is that cows have their free will removed, they are not giving us service, everything they give is being taken. I gave the film a 6 because for all its revelations I do still feel that Arnold doesn't fully get it.

It is sobering to remind oneself that of all the lurid horrors of Cow, this is likely the best a farm gets, and the best simply isn't good enough. We can stop the suffering, end deforestation and end climate change if we stop enslaving animals, but we enjoy the taste of these easily substituted products too much. The childishly absurd "bacon tho" and "cheese tho" arguments win out. Humanity had better hope that no wrathful judge exists.
Cow (2021)

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