A cow’s life on her dairy farm is typically no longer than four or five years. Why is her life cut so short? Various reasons. The most common is because she becomes too fatigued after constantly being kept pregnant to continue to produce milk. She may also become protective of her babies, meaning she is not as willing to do as she’s told and is unpredictable in her behavior. After watching this brilliant documentary, you can hardly blame her.
What does she get for this short lifetime of service? To be separated from those she knows, taken to a pen alone and shot, something you know is coming due to what else she provides. Much of this will linger in your mind while you watch… if you can. I’ll warn you now… it isn’t easy. This isn’t for the weak-hearted.
There are only a few lines of actual dialogue. Instead, what you’re getting here is realism and authenticity, as far as the subject is concerned. When we look into the cow’s eyes, it’s as if she’s gazing into ours. The only sounds we need are hers. They’re quite enough to move and unsettle you. Sometimes, the farmers play music while performing specific tasks, so there’s a soundtrack, which isn’t bad. At least the hard-working cow gets decent tunes to listen to during her day.
The dairy cow in this film is Luma. She’s a Holstein cow, young and pretty, with a cute little dot under her left eye. She’s very vocal. She helps those of us who are watching Andrea Arnold’s documentary see firsthand that cows are very emotional creatures. When the film opens, we are introduced to the sound of a cow in distress. It’s Luma giving birth. Out the baby comes and Luma happily cleans it off. A little while later, the darling baby is standing on his own and ready for his first meal with mom. Of course, mom’s milk isn’t for a nursing baby. That’s for consumers to purchase, so the baby and mommy are separated… for the rest of their lives.
After, cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk catches Luma staring into her camera lens as she seemingly cries out for the crew member to help find her baby. Over and over, you hear her mourning this terrible loss. Sadly, this probably isn’t her first rodeo and most likely isn’t her last.
She knows what each delivery brings, the anguish she can hardly bear. Kowalczyk also caught Luma unable to eat. She seems depressed, even leaning on another cow for support. The sturdy cow doesn’t seem to mind as she has been through it, too. Luma and the other mommies are engorged to the point of barely being able to walk. Their size is unnatural in appearance as they literally drag their utters through the urine, the dung and the mud.
If that isn’t horrifying enough, we see what the baby goes through, as well. You’ve been worried about the cute little treasure since you first saw it being yanked out of Luma. It gets put into a little pen with a hut. It doesn’t have much room to move so luckily, this is a temporary situation. It goes through ear tagging and its little horns are eventually burned off. It isn’t long before all the babies on the farm are loaded onto a truck and hauled away. The camera is in the truck with the youngsters, so you can get a feeling of what they experience during these types of treks. What will these youths go through by the time they’ve reached adulthood? We all know where veal comes from, so will they even be able to reach maturity?
On a small farm, great care is taken while performing the task of trimming hooves. Not here. The job is completed by hauling the animals onto a machine. They’re kept on their sides, so trimming can be done as quickly as possible. The very uncomfortable cow is then lowered back onto the ground. Panic-stricken, it has an awful time getting back onto its feet. Demands are made of it to steady itself immediately. There’s no time to waste! Next!
I could go on and on about what makes this a heartbreaking watch, but perhaps you should take a look for yourself. It’s excruciatingly well made. Bravo, because you will be deeply touched. You’ll not stop thinking about Luma days after you meet her. I believe she deserves you putting in the time to see what she and others like her go through. We can’t look away. They’re gorgeous animals and deserve better treatment. Why aren’t they provided some dignity?
Director: Andrea Arnold
Producer: Kat Mansoor
Run Time: 1h 34m
Distributor: IFC FILMS