Inner Life of Cows Revealed

Filmmaker Michel Negroponte is a sensitive observer. In 2021, having moved from New York to his Catskills home to escape Covid, he became fascinated by a herd of Belted Galloway cattle that were moved onto a neighboring farm. The result was an award-winning documentary, “Herd,” to be screened Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at the Norfolk Library.

Negroponte turned his camera’s lens on the cattle, following them through a calendar year and recording their “personhood.” He learned that each has a distinct personality, that they are sentient, with a social network and capacity for caring. He began to question mankind’s right to control their fate. 

“After making films for 30 years on topics such as mental illness and drug additions, I needed to move in a new direction.” he said. “I wanted to tell stories in a different way… to work on essay films, personal meditations.”

Fascinated by his new “neighbors,” he closely observed how they negotiated their social landscape, resolved arguments, offered support when another gave birth and fiercely protected their young. He learned their personalities, discovered that some were giddy, others reserved and some wise herd leaders. Some of the animals became his friends.

He said he sometimes feels like a rock star when visiting the herd. “I sit on the ground and the heifers circle me. They lick my face and hair and I feel like a Beatle with all these girls.” At other times, they clearly tell him he is intruding. 

For example, while he was waiting to film the birth of a calf, one cow went into labor. “The birth was premature and intensely dramatic,” he reported. “The other cows sensed it. This cow was one of the ones that were less friendly. First thing she did was charge me. It was like a Buster Keaton film. I stepped behind a tree. She would go to the right, and I would step left. Then she would go to left and I would step right. She was really mad at me.” But when the calf was born, he observed how the other mothers and heifers gathered round to help with the baby. 

“Though the film is called ‘Herd,’ it’s also a film about people,” he said, concluding that humans are “a very nasty virus” in the animal kingdom. Negroponte contemplates human “herd mentality” with footage of Hitler and Ghandi. Their opposing ethoses—evil and nonviolence—set a balance for the film.

“Herd” was named Best Documentary at the New Jersey International Film Festival, and received Best Documentary and Best Cinematography awards at the Choice International Film Festival.

Negroponte will be present for a Q&A session following the library screening. Register here

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