Andrea Arnold Discusses the Empathy and the Alive-ness of 'Cow'

We also talk about the making of Arnold's documentary debut and why it's more fun if she doesn't explain what it's about.

Cow Documentary Andrea Arnold Interview
IFC Films

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Typically when a documentary aims to feel like a fiction film, it’s about conforming to narrative and genre conventions. For Andrea Arnold, it’s about being truthful. Not that she aimed for Cow, her first documentary feature, to feel like one of her fiction films. She just didn’t approach the subject matter all that differently than she would a scripted effort. And Arnold, who received an Academy Award for her 2003 short film Wasp before breaking out into features with such acclaimed dramas as Red Road, Fish Tank, and American Honey, has always been of a sort of social realist. They’re far from documentary but have an intimate and observational truthfulness to their fictional storytelling.

With Cow, Arnold turns her lens toward a real-life dairy cow named Luma. In a way, she’s just the writer-director’s latest protagonist, her day-to-day life at a farm in Kent, England, presented no differently than if she were a 15-year-old girl living in an East London council estate or a struggling single mother of four in Dartford or a lonely Scottish CCTV security operator. Luma is another female character, another mother who has it hard in her life, of the sort that fits right into Arnold’s filmography. But I have to admit that I haven’t empathized with any fictional drama character, or any animal in a documentary quite the way that I did with the titular creature in Cow.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical and VOD release in the U.S., I got on Zoom call with Arnold to chat about the making and the meaning of Cow — not that Arnold is going to tell anyone much about the latter. Here is our conversation in full, edited only for clarity:

What inspired you to tackle a nonfiction feature at this point in your career, and why this one?

I mean I don’t have any great career plan. I don’t have a plan like I’m going to be this kind of director or I’m going to be that kind of director. I just get very taken with the kinds of things I want to shine a light on or look at or explore. To me, that doesn’t mean that I have to be a fiction director or anything. It can mean anything.

Cow came about quite a long time ago, like 9 years ago, so it’s actually been a long time in the making. It’s hard to say where exactly it came from, but I always had the notion of making a film about a farm animal, for a long time. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. And then I sort of thought, what about if I tried to make a film about one like I do in my drama films, follow one animal. So that was basically where it came from. Then i mentioned it to someone, and they said, “Oh, we’ll give you a little bit of money to develop that.”

Then, to be honest, I didn’t know how it would be. I kind of imagined it was going to be like a poem or something. Like a sort of study. you know? I originally wanted to do it on film. Because I felt like it would have been so beautiful. But it’s weird when you start out to make a film because you have this sort of notion in your head, and I think this happens particularly in fiction, you have this sort of pure idea in your mind about what it’s going to be. Like you can smell it. And when you try to actually put it down on paper or you try to make the thing that you have in your head, it just turns into something slightly different.

Maybe that’s just the thing with anybody who tries to make anything. In your mind and in your feeling, it’s so pure. And then the reality of the world and the actual physicality of trying to realize something is a whole other land. You get somewhere along the way, but you get something slightly different as well. So I think when I first started off, I thought it would be like a sort of study, like a poem. And it turned into something slightly different. Not really, though. Not really really really, actually. I still would have liked to do it on film maybe.

Cow Documentary Luma Andrea Arnold

Well, the documentary purists would tell you not to have too much of a plan or preconceived notion of what your film should be when it’s this sort of observational nonfiction. 

That’s good because I didn’t. I had a sense of it, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I didn’t know how it would turn out, like story-wise or anything like that. I didn’t know how that would be. I just had a sort of smell of it. Does that make sense? Like a sense of how it might feel. But I didn’t know what the story would be or how the actual nuts of bolts of it would be at all. I did not try to organize that. I did not try to dictate that or push it or to try and make it into something. I literally did go let it unfold, if that makes sense.

Definitely. You say you had the idea to make a film about a farm animal for a long time. Did this interest or desire come out of where you came from? 

Not so much farms, but with nature and with animals a lot. I grew up in a housing estate that was surrounded by — not exactly wilderness because it wasn’t really wilderness but it was a lot of land that wasn’t really farmed or used, so there were a lot of wild spaces. There were a lot of bits that were once worked and then left. So they were all overgrown, and you could explore. There was a lot of land like that. There was some farm land, but I don’t really remember coming across many cows. There were other animals like horses and things.

But I had a very free, roaming childhood and had an uninhibited relationship with nature. I wasn’t told to stay in. I wasn’t told to not bring dogs home. Or do things. And I think that I it was a sort of natural relationship with nature, and I think that that always continued. As I got older and moved to the city, it sort of went away, but I was always longing for it and I always kind of sought it. I became very aware that I’d sort of lost this sort of thing. And I think making a film about farm animals was always probably part of that. It was about engaging with something that I thought was part of my life but that I didn’t really have a relationship with. It was kind of about turning towards things that I felt kind of disconnected from and wondering about that.

It’s interesting that you talk about nature in relation to Cow because I guess it’s sort of a nature film but the animal is not wild; she’s in this artificial state of existence of working in and for the dairy. But also today’s mainstream nature films are all about voiceover anthropomorphizing animals and structurally narrativizing their lives to make them more relatable or whatever. Yet none of those films come anywhere close to making the audience empathize with an animal the way this one does. Was that intentional?

I think I wanted to show you her consciousness. Because I think with all of the animals that we use, it’s very practical; we use their meat and their flesh and their bones and all the parts of them for all the things we need and use them for. But there’s this other part to them, which is their alive-ness — their thoughts and their feelings and their soul, if you like. That bit that you can’t see but is there. We all, everything in life, is alive and is reacting to the world in some way. And that’s what I wanted to show, was that. And I didn’t know whether or not you would see that.

What I tried to do was just show you her in her environment. I didn’t want to try to get inside her head because we can’t do that and that’s not possible. I just wanted to show you her reactions, the way she behaved in response to the things that happened and to leave room for you to imagine what she might be feeling or thinking. Because we can’t know, but we can imagine. So, if you see her, for example, when her calf is taken and she goes around mooing and then she’s looking over at where all the calves were, she was doing that. If I just show you her doing that and I show you where she’s looking, you can decide for yourself what you think she might be feeling or thinking. I tried to leave room for you to imagine, basically. Does that make sense?

Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold (Courtesy of Rankin. An IFC Films release.)

Yes, and I think it comes across in the close-ups on the eyes. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and that’s certainly true with a dairy cow like Luma, too. 

I definitely realized early on that her eyes were the answer to trying to show her, you know, alive-ness. That was a huge note to Magda [Kowalczyk], who is the DP, to try and keep her head, like, to always be at the height of her head and her eyes. That was a huge thing that I wanted to do. It’s not always possible, of course, but we largely managed it. But the eyes really do say a lot, don’t they? They say so much. And what is it? Why is it? What is that? That is so beautiful. But they’re so expressive. And you can read so much from all of us.

You know, the thing about an animal, I think, is there’s no artifice. There’s no artifice whatsoever. You know that if she’s looking fearful or whatever, that’s for real. It’s not an actor who is pretending to be fearful. This is, I guess, the difference between fiction and documentary, largely. I know there are all sorts of ways of making documentaries, but if you’re filming something real — when you see her and her responses, you know they’re real.

We can get very moved by a fiction film, but at the end of the day you know that none of it — it might be representing something that was real. I think people feel that sometimes the only way to say something truthful is by doing it in fiction because it’s sometimes impossible to tell it in another way. But I think that’s very affecting that you’re really seeing how she is really experiencing the world. Like truly. In any of those moments.

With a documentary, though, you can manipulate the truth and mold the narrative through editing. You’re not just a fly on the barn wall, as it were, and merely having the audience observe everything in real time. 

I did my utmost to make it as truthfully as we found it. To make each moment as truthfully as we found it. There might be times when you see her looking at something and then you cut to what she’s looking at, but I’m not faking what she’s looking at. I tried to keep that shot wide so you can go, “Oh, she could be looking at the shed,” “she could be looking at the field,” “she could be looking at her calf.” You can decide. I didn’t zoom in on one thing to say she’s looking at this. Like putting my ideas of what she’s looking at into your head.

I tried to absolutely keep it a representation of that moment. Obviously, when you’re cutting and you’re making decisions, you’re making decisions, and there’s an element of actually making a narrative out of all the footage that we had. It was quite a challenge in a way because we had a lot, a lot, a lot of footage. Somebody said the other day some famous filmmaker said “every cut is a lie.” I can’t remember who said that. Some famous filmmaker.

People typically attribute that to Godard.

Oh, do they? Well, maybe every cut is a truth. Maybe every cut is that filmmaker’s truth. Why is it a lie? Why can’t it be that filmmaker’s truth? Why does it have to be a lie? Depends on how you look at it, I guess. I did do my best to try and represent a version of what we experienced. And thought. As best I could. In the way that I decided to make it, which was to show her consciousness in that universe. And within that, I just tried to be as representative of what was happening, if I could.

Cow Documentary Andrea Arnold

I know people have asked you what Cow is supposed to be about, ranging from the literal to the metaphoric, and you deny anyone a definite meaning. But I wanted to know — and you don’t have to give more than a short answer of yes or no — if you have a personal idea of what the film is about, that you prefer to keep to yourself. 

I do. And I keep it to myself.

Perfect answer.

Because then it’s no fun for anyone going in, right? If I dot the i’s and cross the t’s then it’s no fun for anyone — no discussion to be had. For me, I really believe in film being a place where you allow some room for the audience to have their involvement with it. I really believe in that. In cinema. As having that power, that kind of skill. The images and allowing space for the audience is a really important part of cinema. And I believe in that. I don’t always want to explain anything. That takes out the fun — or not the fun but if they read, oh, this is what she thinks it’s about, then it kind of kills anyone’s involvement with it.

I get feedback from all sorts of people about all kinds of things. There are some common things, you know, mothers, relationships with mothers, relationships with children, incarceration, and women’s lack of control over their bodies. There are all these things. Infertility. There’s been all sort of other things. Loneliness. They have come up a lot. So there are several themes, but I’ve seen people, I’ve been in screenings with people, a couple of really intense screenings, especially with my friends, who tell me exactly what they think afterwards. They’ve been really intense. And it’s largely because they are having their own experience with it. I like it that way.

To me, that’s what cinema is. I think there’s a lot of wanting to explain things too much sometimes. When I’ve done American TV, sometimes I feel like everybody’s explaining everything way too much. There’s no room for imagination. I feel like when you get emotionally involved is when you’re allowed to have your imagination. You’re having an experience with what you’re watching. You’re having your own experience. That’s when I think you get emotionally involved. If you’re told everything, there’s no room for you. I’m not inspired to just explain everything.

I even didn’t want to have you understand what the farmers said. I was maybe going to blot out what they said because I thought, in a way, this would be more of the cow’s experience, wouldn’t it? We wouldn’t know what they’re saying. To the cow it would just be “blah blah blah blah.” Maybe that would be a more representative. But then I thought, actually, it’s probably okay to have them there and do that. I’m not trying to get into the cow’s head anyway, but I did think it was sort of, in a way, more truthful to not. Because i was trying to give you what her experience was like. She can’t understand. For her it’s just “blah blah blah, Luma, blah blah, Luma.”

Well, to be honest, I couldn’t hear a lot of what they were saying in my screener.

Oh, well, fine. You saw it in the way perhaps I originally intended.

Haha. I would like to see it on the big screen, though. Maybe in a double feature with Milk, your film that funny enough has a fitting title to Cow but also maybe a similar story of a mother…

Well it’s kind of related, right? It is. That was my short years ago, and it’s still related. Yeah.

Well, thank you for chatting with me about the film. I’m excited for more people to see it. 

People say it’s a good after pub film. People have big debates.

Cow releases in theaters and on demand via IFC Films on April 8th. 

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.