The Official Competition of the 2017 Las Palmas Film Festival featured two movies in which animals have prominent roles. While Maud Alpi’s Still Life (Gorge coeur ventre) is a docu-fiction movie that explores slaughterhouse horrors through a dog’s eyes, Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water (Qingshui li de daozi) is an allegorical fiction about the destiny of a Tibetan bull whose ultimate purpose, after being used for domestic agricultural works, is to feed the guests and family at a commemorative meal. While different in terms of approach and style, the two works challenge societal customs and traditions that are taken for granted within communities and in the modern world.
With Still Life, first-time director Alpi follows an abattoir labyrinth through the eyes of a dog, Boston, who accompanies his master at work. The camera follows this man at work every night, while his dog patiently waits and witnesses the heart-breaking sounds of animals suffering or feeling their demise coming. The daylight erases all agony and highlights the close bond between man and animal. Living in an improvised abandoned building, the protagonist shares everything with his pal, from food to his most intimate moments, stressing the instinctual behaviour that man and animal share. The common reasons behind the processed animal food consumption are that animals don’t have a conscience and that predatory behaviour exists in the wilderness. Yet, Alpi depicts the animals’ fellowship and affection towards their offspring with delicacy and tenderness, along with their fear in the face of danger.
The cinematography highlights the personification of the animals, drawing closer to the pain through close-ups of the animals’ mournful gazes or directly following their stumbles and objections to advance through the narrow corridors of death. Furthermore, the photography adapts to the movements of the dog, sometimes becoming unstable or blurry and giving priority to his point of view in terms of an eye-level perspective. Adding authenticity to perception and a welcomed corporeality, the sound design mixes the animal’s howling, increased breathing and whining sounds with the moaning of scared animals and machines.
Contrary to the majority of animal rights-themed documentaries, Still Life doesn’t adopt a patronising tone, nor does it feature shocking imagery of mutilated animals and skinless bodies. While the film questions our relations with other human beings and the costs of meat consumption, it does so in a more subtle way than Shaun Monson’s 2005 film, Earthlings. Alpi brings warmth into the dark slaughterhouse by depicting camaraderie and compassion from the most unusual source. Without falling into PETA propaganda, she makes an elegy not only to the animals, but to human beings as equals. The movie’s highlight is the striking contradiction between the closeness we establish with our pets and the indifference for less cuter animals that we butcher and eat without remorse. In fact, the human protagonist seems quite reconciled with this paradox within his own life, although he cynically speaks about inventing easier-to-kill species to breed only for consumption. This meditative, observational documentary transitions to a unexpected utopia that celebrates the dignity of animal life. In a conversation with his owner, Boston is informed that “no animal gets out of here alive.” It’s true, apart from Boston, who guards the doors of this death house like a Cerberus.
This existential exploration of mankind and its social-based conventions continues in the Chinese drama Knife in the Clear Water. Former producer Wang Xuebo makes his directorial debut with this poetical drama set in Western China. Ma is faced with a great dilemma when his family requests permission to sacrifice his old bull for his wife’s honorary funeral ceremony. With the film set in 4:3 format, the director doesn’t idealise this rural, traditional setting, yet he focuses on almost static shots that resemble oil-painted compositions. More like a fable where the animal’s function is mystical, Knife in the Water has little to do with Roman Polanski’s 1962 film of the same name, yet the metaphor stands for an awaiting threat. Here, the protagonist is faced with a similar dilemma that Still Life puts on the table, of how to respect traditional customs without having to sacrifice a soul. To Ma, the bull is a magical animal, with whom he shares a bond that is hard to break for such trivial thing as food. However, his worries are justified by harsh living conditions, religious traditions and limited resources.
Knife in the Clear Water revolves around folklore and popular wisdom through an almost ethnographic approach of human co-existence with animals. According to superstition, when an animal has been marked for slaughter, it sees the reflection of a knife as a constant menace, feeling its approaching death. Indeed, the old man’s bull stops eating and drinking, calmly accepting its fate. Reminiscent of Pietro Marcello’s Bella e perduta (also shot from the animal’s point of view), Xuebo’s film depicts a shared vision about a world based on fate. Aside from the companionship versus consumption debate brought up by Alpi, the Chinese director adds a vision about the animal as part of a cycle, of a community: it grows nearby, you work the soil with it, hence it supports a certain agrarian life, only to grow old and gain wisdom along with the people it lived with. There is a contrast between the type of relations the peasant has with animals in the rural environment and the lack of focus and attachment related to urban food consumption, and Xuebo accentuates this concept. Ma’s son is the pragmatic type, living in the city and counting on the bull as a supplier for his feast, while his father considers his attachment to the domesticated peer.
Through extraordinary cinematography, Wang Xuebo provides a social commentary about a disappearing, magical society. In a way, Ma embodies the model for a previous co-existence with animals, a type of living that has already perished in Still Life.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.