Herd, a film directed by Michel Negroponte which is playing at the 2023 New Jersey International Film Festival, is an insightful and creative film that truly delves into the relationship humans have with animals, on both a physical and spiritual level. We are introduced to a herd of Belted Galloway cattle on a pasture in the Catskills, and we follow their journey from mating, protecting their young, to even simple grazing. We watch the cows graze and follow their cycle of life as we are shown polarizing image after another, asking us to truly question the role other intelligent and sentient life has on our own. The film asks many questions and presents many ideas about the seemingly simple but ultimately complicated relationship between humans and cows. Are they equally sentient? Finally, is the right path towards respect and admiration for these animals, or is it to command them as we see fit?
The film begins with the simple proverb “Who dies if cow lives? Who lives if cow dies? which helps to set the stage for the thoughts during the rest of the film. The way historical images are contrasted with the cows really does make the audience contemplate even further than they already would. Images are shown of Hitler and Ghandi, two vastly different viewpoints on the appreciation of life in general. Hitler, who believed only one race is pure, and the rest should be eliminated, while Ghandi believed cows were sacred and to be protected. These three ideas, one of evil and violence, one of neutrality and life, and one of protection and holiness set a balance for the film while posing a question to the audience, which way will they think and what role should animals like cows play in our lives and history as humans?
Another strength of the film is its use of sound and music to convey its emotions. When the cows are shown, there is usually no music present, only the flashes of text on the screen, so it feels as if you would be watching a silent film, with a flash of accompanying dialogue or subtitles. In contrast, when the Germans are shown there is German music in the background, further enforcing the apolitical sense and neutrality the cows bring to the movie’s collection of ideas. Music is used again when discussing the buffalos, the song “Home on the Range” is used as the pictures of buffalo hunting and extinction is shown, hammering home the glorification of such elements by humans both in the past and present.
Herd also provides us a grave warning of the future if things continue as they do, with the relationship between humans and other sentient animals hanging in the balance. Buffalo are shown as grave warning, the narration recounts their slaughter at the hands of humans and makes us question if such actions should truly be done to the sentient, complex and detailed animals shown in the film. The repeated view of the cow’s lifestyle, through breeding, social contact and even just grazing shows us how the actions humans committed in the past are so much more magnified given the context of the cows lifestyle. Looking further into how these sentient animals operate truly makes what humans have done to them and their relatives haunting. The domination humans have had over cows and other sentient animals over history has been paramount, and the film does a great way of showing us this through even the subtlest of gestures, such as the cameraman’s shadow near the cow showing us how even during the making of the film, humans still stand tall over all other creatures. The more we learn about these animals and how they communicate, grow, and survive makes us consider, should things be different?
Herds screens at the 2023 New Jersey International Film Festival on Saturday, June 3. The film will be Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 5 PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. Tickets are available for purchase here. HERD Director Michel Negroponte will be at this screening to do a Q+A session with the audience after the show.