Cow: Director Andrea Arnold on her Eccentric Documentary (Cannes Fest 2021)

Arnold on Her First Documentary

The director discussed how she found the star of her latest film, which offers an intimate look at the life of an English dairy cow.

Even before embarking on her first documentary, Cow, director Andrea Arnold employed certain nonfiction elements into her films.
There were the naturalistic shots of animals and insects in Fish Tank, her 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights and 2016’s American Honey, the nonactors and unknowns that have populated so many of her films (launching the careers of Sasha Lane and Katie Jarvis) and the realism of their settings, from Fish Tank‘s public housing complex to American Honey‘s road trip through rural U.S.

But Cow is different: The film’s star is Luma, an English dairy cow whose life consists of giving birth, getting milked, being inseminated, experiencing checkups and, occasionally, going out into an open field to graze. Her calves are separated from her early, destined to grow up in a different part of the same farm than their mothers, who are living out “this maternal cycle for all of their lives,” says Arnold.

The film takes intimate look at Luma’s life, often presenting her at eye level, using many shots from her point of view, threading music played at the farm into the film’s soundtrack and only showing farmers insofar as they work with Luma, her calf or other cows in the farm.

There is no narration.

“I just thought, why don’t I try and see if I can film an animal a bit like I film my characters, focusing on one consciousness and one being?” Arnold says.

Editing the film was a challenge: “I had to find something that felt like a shape, and that felt quite tricky.”

Cow was a long time in the making: The project first took shape about 9 years ago, and the film subsequently took 4 years to make.

Origins of Film?

The film came out of feeling of disconnect with nature. Why do I feel so disconnected and how can I connect? How could I turn the camera toward something that might make people connect?

And then I just thought, why don’t I try and see if I can film an animal a bit like I film my characters, so just focusing on one consciousness and one being? I thought that might be quite interesting because we might really get to know them and we might really get to see their personality.

Choosing the particular cow?

We had to find a farm that was within striking distance of London because we had to go regularly and last-minute. Once we found the farm, we had to identify a cow. We were looking for a cow that was pregnant because I wanted to start with birth, so there were only so many cows pregnant. I asked the farmers about their personalities and they mentioned Luma, they said she was a feisty cow. I thought that was good: It obviously meant that she has some character.

When I met her, she’s got this very beautiful white head with the eyeliner. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure that you would always be able to pick her out in a crowd, but I thought with that head we had more chance of seeing her. But I needn’t have worried because any cow I focused on, you would have got to know them. She did have a very beautiful head. So we picked Luma.

Funding for this film?

I was very lucky because one of the first people we asked for money was Christine Langan, who was at BBC. Christine had actually grown up with cows, so when I talked to her about it, she completely got it. I was just lucky that she had had a relationship with cows. I’m not sure there would have been many people at the beginning otherwise.

Even since then, people say, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I say, “Well, it’s about a cow.” I never knew how to describe it. I could just talk about where it came from and my passion for it; there wasn’t going to be story or drama. It was quite a simple idea. There’s always a lot of love for cows, anyone who’s had any sort of relationship or connection with them. They talk about them lovingly. Christine was one of those people, obviously.

Starting this film with a birth?

A dairy cow’s life is busy: It’s about giving milk, getting pregnant and giving birth and then giving milk. They live this maternal cycle for all of their lives, so there’s a lot of things involved in that: There’s a lot of vet visits; there’s insemination, there’s the bull; when they’re pregnant, there’s the scans and the things they have to have done; and then the birth and then there’s the milking. So there’s a cycle and there’s lots of things going on all the time. So we would go for all of those days, and then I would just go do filming on a regular day, where they’re just coming in for milking.

Camera placed at the height of the cows

Cows are used to people being around–there’s a lot of farmhands and farmers around all the time, from birth. So I don’t think they were too affected by us being there. But I always made the point of saying, if she Luma  reacts to the camera, if she doesn’t like it or she responds, then we’ll include that. I didn’t want to pretend we were not there because we were there, and her reaction was part of the truth of it. To me, the camera being there was part of it. I was very clear to make that part of it. Occasionally, if she got in a mood about something that was going on, she would butt a camera, like “Get out of my way, I don’t like it.” And I would think, well, that’s fair enough. I was respectful of her annoyance with us sometimes.

Music?

The farm had pop radio on in the cowshed, with lots of love songs, the way pop radio does. I thought, oh, that’s so interesting, because pop music is about love and longing and desire and can’t have and I miss you and where are you. I thought that’s so interesting, because of all the separations of the cows and the calves. There is lot of longing in that cowshed you feel. So the music felt like gift. Most of it, not all of it, comes from the farmers. Some of it comes from the farm and some of it I put in, but as extension of the existing music. I can’t just clear anything I like, that’s not possible. As most filmmakers know, the music thing is tough, and also money for some things. But I basically used that as a lifting-off point. I used the reality and kind of just grew that a little bit.

Particular challenges?

I guess the challenge of this was having so much footage. How do you make narrative of that? How do you put together a kind of beginning, middle and end? A lot of events are quite same-y, in a way. The good thing: We weren’t really in a rush to finish it, so we would edit a bit, and then there would be a gap, and then obviously we had lockdown and stuff, so there would be gaps, and I would look at everything and basically try to use my intuition and picked out anything that felt important. But there was no clear story, exactly, and I had to find something.

That’s true of a lot of documentaries because there was no narrative at all. I had to find something that felt like a shape, and that felt quite tricky. But then I’m always playing with editing, like when I worked on American Honey and I worked with Joe Bini, I’m always trying to find different ways to work that might bring about some interesting creativity. And I said to Joe, “What about if we sit through the dailies and we talk about them and then you don’t look at the script?” And that’s what we did.

I’m always incorporating into my drama documentary elements to bring about life. I’ve always got a lot of real kids, always using real locations. If there’s something happening in the background, I think, “Oh great, let’s include that.” I sort of love it to be a little chaotic, and if it’s not chaotic enough, I’ll introduce something that brings a bit of chaos. I think when you’re first at film school, there’s this idea that you make storyboards and everything’s going to be exactly like this — I really don’t like that. I like the idea that I’m surprised and that the day surprises me and whoever we’ve cast surprises me. So I think I’ve always slightly had documentary elements in the fiction as well so that it’s all sort of overlapping.

Selling to streaming service?

I’ve always believed in cinema. I still do. I know that streaming is part of the world right now, and filmmakers want their films seen. But I do really believe in cinema, I believe in that collective experience, I believe in the power of the big image. I believe in the space it gives an audience to have their own experience with what’s happening. I believe in having people in a room all together, in them not answering the door to delivery in the middle of the film or making a cup of coffee. You get people in a room for a short amount of time and you give them an experience. It’s like an invitation by the filmmaker to go “I’m going to give you an experience in this dark room altogether, here you are.” It’s a very different thing sitting at home by yourself and fast-forwarding. I believe there’s always going to be a bunch of people that want theatrical experience. Obviously, streaming’s become a big part of life and that’s how a lot of films are getting seen, but I will strive to make cinema and get it seen at the cinema.