It’s not hard to find people who hate their job, but people in this state usually elicit only perfunctory sympathy. Jobs can be tough, and this is well-understood—they can be tedious, or demanding, maybe the pay is bad, or the managers are assholes. There are a million reasons to dislike your vocation, but we shrug—that’s just life, we say. 73 Cows is a documentary about one such man, but his story breaks through this malaise because of the exquisite pain his particular job causes—Jay is dying a spiritual death, and the torment is remarkably, nakedly, etched on his face in every frame of the film. He inherited, and runs, a small UK cattle farm, and his job means killing his friends.
A vegetarian beef farmer—that’s a funny contradiction. It of course wasn’t so funny to Jay Wilde, whose very being was disintegrating in moral agony. Nor was it funny to his wife Katja, who bore the brunt of Jay’s increasing depression. The pair decided to do something about it however and transition their farm from beef to organic produce. This transition is difficult, expensive, and practically unheard of in the small farming communities of England. Even more difficult was the question of what to do with the existing herd? 73 Cows is a documentation of their process, but more so a profile of Jay and Katja. We’ve talked much about the trend online toward documentary profiles, but, to borrow a phrase from John F. Kennedy, filmmaker Alex Lockwood’s piece is truly a profile in courage.
It may seem hyperbolic to bandy about a word such as “courage”, but despite the attention that made Jay and Katja minor celebrities in the UK papers, they are actually notorious in some circles. Fellow farmers are confused—the project is known to them as the “funny farm”, and many workers in the film refused to be on-camera due to the backlash. Lockwood’s film captures beautifully a crucible for Jay and Katja, and better than almost any documentary I’ve seen captures the moral weight of its action. Jay is torn by the logistical complexity of the farm’s change, and keenly feels the weight of obligation to his dead father from whom he inherited the farm. Yet, nobly, he is steadfast in his conviction. Agree or disagree with the ethics of of animal husbandry, what else but courage do you call it when folks risk everything and defy societal norms to do what they feel is right?
73 Cows has everything you ideally want in a short documentary: it has an intriguing top-level premise, it elicits truly emotional and compelling performances from its on-camera subjects, and Lockwood, alongside Cinematographer Oliver Walton, fills the film with beautifully composed and cinematic images. Shot on a c500, the film utilizes slo-mo frequently to evoke the rhythm and simplicity of the farm life, but also to jive with Jay’s soft-spoken and melancholy nature. Befitting its subject, the film’s pace and tone contribute to a melancholic sense of spiritual unrest, though, like most short docs, the film does sag a bit in the middle third, and could have, in our opinion, shaved a couple of minutes from its 15min runtime to reduce some of the more repetitious elements.
Lockwood is a new name, for us, but he has worked in film for 7 years after graduating from the film program at the University of Gloucestershire. The majority of this has been on low-budget narrative and documentary projects while supporting himself with a thriving corporate video business, and while 73 Cows is itself a lean, no-budget affair, it is remarkably polished, and should serve as a breakthrough for the young director. Gaining traction online already from animal-rights interest groups, Lockwood is currently working on a new documentary, this time about Lizzie Carr, as she paddle boards the length of the Hudson River in order to raise awareness of plastic pollution.