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New documentary 'Cow' imparts the painful solitude in the life of a dairy cow

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Cow" is a film that's almost wordless but still eloquent - often painfully so.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

SIMON: It shows mothers crying out for their children, snorting in frustration and often looking dull-eyed and lonely. "Cow" is the first documentary from Andrea Arnold, who has directed the feature films "Red Road" and "American Honey." She joins us now. Ms. Arnold, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREA ARNOLD: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This cow does have a name, Luma. Why did you decide to try to tell her story?

ARNOLD: I think this goes back for quite a long time. I had a very close relationship with nature growing up, a very sort of wild relationship with nature, because I lived on a housing estate and had very young parents, so they just let me roam. And then as I got older, I kind of - you know, I moved to the city. That sort of slipped away a bit. And I always wanted to do something that kind of put me on the other side of the fence, if you like, because I've always seen cows outside the window on the train. And I thought, well, I wonder what it's like to be in the field, you know, rather than looking at the cows.

SIMON: Did the farm owners seem to know how some of these scenes would look to the public?

ARNOLD: I mean, the thing is, when we started the film, I didn't really know what the film was going to be, to be honest. But we always were very straight with the farmers and told them what we were doing, that we were filming the cow's experience. And they could very clearly see that because we were always with the cow and filming the cow. So we were very straight with them and showed them things as we went along as well and actually went to show them the film at the end of the process. For them, it was kind of interesting because they're watching something that they have spent their entire lives doing. So actually one of them, after about 10 minutes, said, well, I'm not bored. I thought I was going to be really bored because, you know, he was watching something that he was very used to.

SIMON: The first truly wrenching moment comes about 15 minutes into "Cow." Luma's calf is taken from her. Her delight in being close to her child is suddenly and forcefully shut down. She seems to cry out for her calf.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

SIMON: What do you say to people, including some farmers, who say, look; they work with and they care about animals, and some of us are just anthropomorphizing by imputing human characteristics onto an animal when we see a scene like this?

ARNOLD: I think that that argument has been going on for a long time - isn't it? - about what animals are actually - you know, how do we know what animals are actually feeling? You don't actually know. But we don't know what another human being is feeling. But I know she has aliveness. I know she has consciousness. And we're very used to using animals for their meat and their bones and all the things that they - you know, we use them for. But what about that consciousness? What about this thing that we have, which is feelings, thoughts, desires? You know, what about that invisible side of ourselves, which you might call the soul or whatever you want to call it? But they have that, too. So you can imagine what's going on.

SIMON: I mean, we should be clear. We don't see a moment of conspicuous personal cruelty. But several times we see her separated suddenly from calves in the course of the film.

ARNOLD: But that's dairy farming.

SIMON: Yeah.

ARNOLD: She's just one cow. But, I mean, that is - for the large part, you know, most industrial dairy farming involves - you know, we don't get the milk without the cow providing the milk. And in order to do that, the easiest thing is to separate the mother and the calf because we're going to be taking the milk.

SIMON: I was so engrossed in the film, I wasn't timing exactly, but it seemed to me we're an hour into the film before we see a real patch of grass. Most of the time in this film, we see them in the stalls - concrete, wire, lack of sunlight. It doesn't look like the kind of farm you see in a children's book.

ARNOLD: I mean, the thing is, the reality is we are all quite disconnected from the reality, aren't we? I mean, that's the sad thing, I think, you know, because we have plenty of fantasies of animals growing up. We have picture books, and we have fluffy cow toys and fluffy pig toys. And we use imagery of animals in fantastical ways everywhere. But actually, the reality is a little tougher.

SIMON: Andrea Arnold - her new film, "Cow," is in select theaters and on demand from IFC Films. Thank you so much for being with us.

ARNOLD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.