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Beautiful Bovines
by Marinell Haegelin

Directors have favored bovines for years, albeit typically in supporting roles. Where would John Wayne or Clint Eastwood be without cattle? William Frederick „Buffalo Bill“ Cody’s reputation was founded on buffalos, whereas Vincent Gallo’s 1998 film Buffalo ‘66 starring himself and Mickey Rourke takes place in Buffalo, New York. Frank Lloyd’s 1923 silent film Black Oxen with Clara Bow has nothing to do with oxen, while Sven Nykvist’s 1991 Oxen with Max von Sydow will make one think twice about what they eat.

Unsurprisingly, those choosing films for Filmfest Hamburg must also have an affinity for bovines. In 2009 a water buffalo had the leading role in Border. Anyone who saw last year’s Tamara Drewe would be hard pressed to forget the scene of the cow-revenge. This year two documentaries feature cows: the Swedish Women with Cows, and the French Cattle, and bovines have supporting roles in Artificial Paradises and UFO In Her Eyes.

For seventy-nine years Britt Georgsson’s life has revolved around cows: at four she began helping her father milking and taking care of them. After his death, she assumed responsibility for the farm, and the twelve cows became her pets—Lilly, Tora, Fille, Laban, Guston, Lisolet, etcetera. Her sister Ingrid, one year her junior, married, had a daughter and a fulfilling life. Since her husband Kurt’s death, and feeling sorry for Britt, Ingrid has helped her even though she is diametrically opposed to keeping the cows. Twenty-five years previously a cow’s kick broke Britt’s back; unheeding of doctors advice, she returned to her cows too soon with the consequence that now she walks totally bent over (think pretzel). The two indomitable women bicker and squabble, but when the authorities move in and threaten Ingrid and the farm—their inheritance—blood, and friendships, prove to be thicker than water. Documentarist Peter Gerdehag’s camerawork is breathtaking—many shots stirred memories of my grandfather’s farm in Kansas—and editor Tell Aulin’s exquisite visual treatment, intermingling family movies and photos with Gerdehag’s imagery, add to this heartrending portrait of these two feisty old women. Women with Cows is a poignant reminder that life’s bonds triumph over life’s obstacles.  

The herd mentality i.e. communist doctrine versus individuality is prominent in Xiaolu Guo’s ironic UFO In Her Eyes; an ox does have a supporting role in the wedding sequence. Following a clandestine roust with her married lover, laborer Kwok Yun picks up an odd fragment and has an otherworldly experience—this glowing gigantic dumpling-shaped object must be an UFO. Subsequently that day she aids an American debilitated by snakebite, but he also disappears. Learning of these events, the village’s Chief Chang ambitiously uses Kwok Yun to further her political, and the Three-Headed Bird Village’s, gain. Tourism and development based on Kwok Yun’s UFO sighting, underwritten by a healthy contribution from the recovered wealthy American, and with abandonment for environmental repercussions, set off a chain of sad events. Promoted to “model peasant“ status, Kwok Yun slowly grasps that what she really wants is a like-minded cast out. With beautiful photography of southern China, this surrealistic film is captivating.

Other than the cows, I cannot fathom why Artificial Paradises was a festival selection. Shot in Veracruz, Mexico, the story is about how drug addicts Luisa and Salomón, with totally disparate backgrounds and ages, develop amity while enclosed in this natural paradise. As a 10-minute short, Yulene Olaizola’s film just might have been interesting. My half-star rating is for the cow that “steals the scene” on the beach.

Some films do “display the slowness regarded as typical of cattle and related animals” (literary [Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation]), and, one could wait “until the cows come home” to take a chance on going to a particular movie. Although I was leery when I sat down to watch Women with Cows, in the end seeing a delightful documentary was my reward.