Andrea Arnold, UK 2021
Arnold’s documentary creates no illusion of rural pastoral serenity and bliss on this British dairy farm. There’s a jolt right at the start when Luma gives birth to her new baby, licks it clean, then is led reluctantly away to the milking machines while her calf is fed from a bottle. She cries out for her baby as does the audience, but soon she is back in the swing of things attached to a high-tech milking machine. It’s a slow-moving monotonous nightmare where we watch Luma and her fellow female inmates, day after day, walking around in circles in the seemingly filthy barn being led to and from the milking machines. The humans aren’t cruel, and intermittently speak to the “girlies” encouragingly. They are, after all, there to make sure this well-oiled factory keeps its milk production levels high.
Director of photography Magda Kowalczyk ensures we get plenty of closeups. Luma stares with her big brown eyes into ours through the camera lens. What is she thinking? Does she have feelings? Is Luma oblivious to the fact she has morphed from a bovine beauty into a miniature milk factory?
It’s difficult sitting in the theater seats without squirming. How much longer can WE take this? Arnold seems to know there are limits. Suddenly, Luma and her fellow cows are led to nearby lush green fields where they can graze and lounge and be at peace. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. This is the life. But not for long.
Arnold injects a few moments of levity through her soundtrack choices. Between the mooing of the cows, the coaxing commands of humans, and the clanking of metal we hear songs by Billie Eilish and The Pogues. For Luma’s mating scene (got to keep the milk factory pregnant) Mabel sings “Mad Love” as fireworks flash overhead. Levity aside, we sense Luma’s days are numbered. For her sake we are relieved.