Emmanuel Gras is a French scriptwriter and director of both documentaries and fictional films. In 2011, his latest film “Bovines, the real life of cows” was presented at the International Environment Film Festival in Paris. At the very least, we can say that this UFO of a documentary, which spends 64 minutes with Charolais cows as if the camera was one of them, with no music and no voice-over, drew much attention, as it reinvented a genre where the point of view is usually that of a human.
What do we know about cows?
Emmanuel Gras had the idea for this film when he realized that animal documentaries were always about the extraordinary adventures of wildlife, and were never really concerned with domestic animals, with creatures we feel that we know because they are part of our lives. But, really, what do we know about cows?
What do they do when there is a storm? And when the sun comes out again? What are they thinking of as they stand still, gazing into space? Do they even think?
Emmanuel Gras explains that the farmers allowed him to film their cattle because they, too, were curious to know what the cows did when they were alone. Curious to see their intrinsic animality, which can be captured only with patience, discretion and understanding. This is really what “Bovines” is all about: showing these cows not as domestic animals, but as beasts, as placid and quiet monsters. To make us look at them differently. This is why humans are practically absent from this slow-moving film, only intervening as outsiders. Their point of view is never asked for, they are, for once, not the centre of attention. This is not a film about breeding in a French rural area. There is actually a scene where we see one of the cows be taken away to the slaughterhouse – the cows that Gras filmed are bred for their meat and not for their milk, which explains why they spend so little time around humans. The scene takes place in a grey, melancholic fog, and as the vehicle that carries the cow drives away, the entire herd moos to say goodbye. It is beautiful and sad, but Gras insists that he did not mean to criticize breeding:
I wanted to show the living creatures behind what we put on our plates. This movie changed my vision of breeding: it is an exchange, a necessary relationship between a human being and an animal, which cannot be carried on without thinking. I am not a vegetarian, but I would like people to see that cows, which are usually considered as rather stupid and rough animals, have feelings and sensations too.
The power of beauty
Emmanuel Gras conveys these sensations using a simple and very powerful tool: beauty. Beauty will get you hooked on these cows’ lives for over an hour, it will keep you watching, witnessing the birth of a calf, the storm breaking, the goodbye in the fog, the doing nothing and just being. Gras, who started his career as a director of photography, has a talent for framing, for capturing the light, for turning the Normandy landscape into a series of master paintings, and the cows into feminine and sensitive characters. When documentary work meets plain art, it has the power to change the way you see things. A cow will never look the same to you again.
Three things you will learn about cows
- They look at the world just like children do, with wonder and directness in their eyes, as Emmanuel Gras explains: “I wanted to capture this way they have of looking at things.”
- Among a herd, cows establish bonds of friendship and even “chum up” in pairs, where each cow takes care of the other. They often share gestures of tenderness and affection.
- Although cows are familiar with us, they actually need to be tamed. “The first time I went to film a herd, I realized that the next day, it was hiding from me. I probably was in too much of a hurry.” And they have leaders too, the bravest ones, who are less afraid to approach the camera or to sniff at a plastic bag to see what it is.