After making its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, “Cow” is finally opening in select theaters and on demand this Friday, April 8. RogerEbert.com spoke to Arnold over Zoom about the origins of the documentary, the part humans play in nature, and the profound feeling of being seen by a film.
How did you first come across Luma and decide to make this documentary about this specific cow?
Once I decided that we were going to make a film about a cow, because I wasn’t sure which animal we would do. At first I thought about a pig. I thought about a chicken; chicken lives in factory farms are about 90 days. So I thought well, that’d be a short shoot, in terms of filming, and they’re very characterful chickens. So I thought that would be quite good. But then I thought about dairy cows. It felt very powerful because of the whole feminine aspect to it as well. I thought that added another layer of something really interesting. Once I decided that, I realized that that’s connected to everything else I’ve ever done. You think all of your decisions are new and unconscious, but actually, you’re just doing the same things. We decided on the dairy cow and then we had to find a farm close to London, because we had to be going back and forth a lot. There were only a certain number of farms that fit the bill.
Then we found the farm and I asked them about their cows. We were looking for a cow that was pregnant, because I wanted to start with a birth. They mentioned Luma, I think fairly early on, and said that she was a very feisty cow. I loved the idea of that because I thought that meant she definitely would have some personality. I thought it’s an interesting situation to have a face to the cow. Also, because their lives are very managed, I became fascinated with all the gates and the locks on the doors this way and the alleyways that way, and the fences. Because their lives are entirely managed, the idea there was a feisty cow in that managed situation was appealing to me. She had this very beautiful head, this white head with a little eyeliner. To me she just was a beautiful looking cow. Her head felt very visually important, so we would see her easily. So both her looks and personality got the job, basically.
You mentioned how the film is similar to your previous work. When I was watching it and read in the press notes about Luma’s constant birthing and milking, it made me think of your short film “Milk,” and the grief that that mother went through. Could expand a little bit on the thematics that you think are in all of your films?
That’s quite hard, because it’s quite personal. Interestingly, I think when I make anything, I sometimes don’t know what I’m getting at and then it becomes obvious and you go oh, okay. So in a way, what I said to you just now about the dairy cow and stuff is definitely connected to “Milk,” I think for sure. Mothers and babies. But I find it really hard to talk about in a broader way, actually. You’ll have to make the connections.