Of Dogs and Men – and Cows

in 15th Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca

by Kira Taszman

Dog is man’s best friend, or so they say. But what is a dog’s mission on the big screen? Often cast in family films for causing mayhem (A Dog Called Beethoven), for being cute, loyal to man or both (I Am Legend, Hachiko) or even becoming an action hero (Bolt), their screen time and functions vary. As for cows in cinema, from being mere cattle in Westerns, they have served as status symbol (Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow), humanised characters in a cow community (Disney’s Home on the Range) or even heroes of documentaries with a mission (Cowspiracy).

In this year’s #Animal section, expertly curated by TIFF’s artistic director Mihai Chirilov and offered to the judgement of the FIPRESCI jury, one could encounter dogs, cows, bees, a parrot, a wolf and an elephant. However, the ungulates and canine animals being in the majority, the pains and adventures they were subjected to, the evolution they underwent and their relationship to humans generated some truly memorable cinematic moments. There may not have been a well defined thread to all of the films featuring dogs (2) and cows (4). But it was impressive to witness what depth and soul was allotted to them in these idiosyncratic animal films, which touched on wide variety of philosophical and social issues.

In Laurie Andersen’s experimental autobiographical documentary Heart of a Dog the auteur’s pet Lolabelle is a dog of many talents. It helps first person narrator Anderson in dealing with geopolitical turning points like 9/11 or with the death of her mother. While Anderson’s relationship with her mother, according to her, was never a loving one, she puts all her time and care into Lolabelle’s education, especially when she becomes blind and ailing. While one may find it peculiar to watch a dog, playing piano and painting, one is also touched by the director’s attention to her pet. Since Anderson’s floating storytelling knows no limits, hopping from one association to another, using animated and personal footage as well as archive material, the dog’s activities are also amply presented. Amongst Californian nature, Anderson witnesses her dog’s brush with death, which widens her own horizon. When Lolabelle’s time comes, Anderson accompanies the animal to her death as an act of supreme love she missed with her own mother. Thus, the dog functions as a figure of emotional attachment as well as a source of inspiration for the artist’s musing on the ubiquitous post-9/11 surveillance in American society .

Olmo Omerzu’s film Family Film (Rodzinny film) deals with a well-off and seemingly happy Czech family of four. When the parents go on a sailing tour in the Indian Ocean and their boat capsizes, they are saved, but the family dog is stranded on a desert island. And while we have has seen many films on human castaways, there rarely, if ever, has one been so touched by the experience of a pet, with no Robinson Crusoe-like survival abilities, in the wilderness. It is both heart-breaking and thrilling to observe the melancholic pooch wandering on its own through the island’s beach and undergrowth, and seeking refuge in a cave. The dog’s story is told as a contrasting parallel to the family’s survival story, at the centre of which is questioning one particular character’s authority. When everyone is reunited, it looks like that the dog – exhausted and still apathetic from its plight – is the only family member beyond suspicion.

Dogs, as we have seen in Heart of a Dog, can be anthropomorphised and individualized, but so can cows. In the parodic Animal Politico (directed by Tião), the first-person narrator – a cow – shares its existential doubts and fears. Always around Christmas time, it gets miserable and questions its life’s purpose. To fight its depressions, it tries out Yoga or goes to the gym, but ultimately finds solace in nature. In a crater-ridden desert, it sees some apes and remarks how a tiny deviation in DNA can make a difference between beings, who build space rockets and those, who throw faeces at each other. The narrator, clearly identifying itself with the former category, also watches TV in the desert, where it is visited by its human family. It completes its humanisation by eventually walking on its two hind legs with its udder pointing up the air, while continuing to philosophise. So, Animal Politico turns out to be a cerebral, sometimes funny observation on civilisation, the meaning of life and on a four legged character that has no cow-like characteristics.

In contrast, the bovine hero in Holy Cow by Imam Hasanov is part of a livestock. Still, it causes quite a stir in a little Azerbaijani village, for it is a European cow: quite handsome and instrumental in improving farmer Tapdig’s and his family’s life. Indeed, they sell the cheese, made of its milk and the calves it gives birth to, and are thus able to renovate their humble abode. However, before acquiring the cow, the farmer had been warned by the village’s elders that such a cow did not belong there. And now that the foreign cow – not a foreign person, machine or idea – is in the village, its presence disturbs the community and its way of thinking, which is dead-set against innovation. The foreign cow embodies change despite the fact that it simply does what any cow is supposed to do. In the meanwhile, Tapdig develops a very close relationship to the animal, elevating it to the status of pet and even stirring his wife’s jealousy.

While the female cow that serves as investment, the bull appears like an economic liability. Thus, the poetic film Bella e perduta (directed by Pietro Marcello) – a hybrid of a documentary and a fantastic tale, using characters of Commedia dell’ arte – narrates the sad story of a young buffalo named Sarchiapone. As a calf, it was rescued by the shepherd Tommaso Cestrone (a genuine Italian farmer) who also saves the once sumptuous 18th century Royal Palace of Caserta from decay. After his death (Cestrone tragically succumbed to a heart attack on Christmas of 2013), Sarchiapone is taken care of by Pulcinella, a masked buffoon who has taken a vow of silence. The two periodically find shelter in good people’s homes, but Pulcinella is asked frequently why he takes care of an animal that is now only good for slaughter. Sarchiapone, yet another bovine in the #Animal section who serves as first person narrator, is doomed from the very beginning. While being transported to the slaughterhouse, he tells his life’s story in flashbacks, which are linked to Tommaso’s story. Since Pulcinella has broken his vow of silence, the buffalo loses its ability to speak and cannot be saved. At the end, in a truly haunting scene, in which Sarchiapone is loaded on the truck leading it to its death, the young bull turns into a tragic hero, even shedding a tear.

In Neon Bull (Boi neon) by Gabriel Mascaro, bulls are not characters, but part of a popular Brazilian rodeo-like amusement called Vaquejadas, where two men on horseback try to make them fall by pulling their tail. The bulls are handled by cowhands named vaqueiros, and the main hero Iremar is a natural at this job. Since he embodies the so called masculine qualities of strength, authority as well as good looks, it comes as a surprise that in his spare time he devotes himself to his real passion – designing sexy outfits for his co-worker Galega, an exotic dancer. However, the film never makes a fuss about these seemingly incompatible occupations – the macho cowboy job on the one hand, and, on the other – the creativity, associated mostly with urban, often gay fashion designers. In addition to the accurate and convincing depiction of the dynamics of the Vaquejadas troupe, this beautiful film – thanks to the bulls and the slowly dying popular show they participate in – also depicts changes in Brazilian society, and at the same time explores the depths of masculinity.

Edited by Christina Stojanova