• Interviews

Thus Spoke the Cow: An Exclusive Interview with Francisca Alegría

The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future begins with a hauntingly mournful, otherworldly song as the camera floats in all directions amidst the flora and fauna of a riverbank. Frogs are hopping, insects crawling, water streaming. But the images are far from idyllic as the screen fills with fish struggling to breathe out of the water, others already dead. The stark absence of any human activity spells out the culprit for this catastrophe.

Is it that death is coming?

Is the end nigh?

Suddenly, Magdalena (Mia Maestro), wearing a motorcycle helmet, emerges from the water and crawls out exhausted, covered in mud. She can be seen in flesh and blood but is no ordinary human: she has risen from the dead.

When the elderly Enrique (Alfredo Castro) sees the ghost of his deceased wife, he suffers a nervous episode. His daughter, Cecilia (Leonor Varela), a strict and rational doctor, takes it upon herself to help him recuperate and decides to temporarily move to Enrique’s dairy farm. Her genderfluid son Tomas (Enzo Ferrada) and her little daughter Alma (Laura del Rio) reluctantly tag along.

Magdalena’s return is silent. She roams among her living family members like the river through the land. Even though we find out that she died by suicide, and that her husband had something to do with it, her mood is not one of revenge, retribution, or malice. She is there, it appears, to heal; perhaps herself, but mostly her offspring, especially her daughter.

When confronted with the vision of her dead mother and the spirit of an earmarked cow, the scientific-minded Cecilia is forced to embark on a journey of self-realization. Having succumbed to the inexplicability of her visions and the impotence of her once-trusted ego, she gains the gift of true vision. Raw and vulnerable, she is now able to feel the pain of the beings around her; beings who passed by her unnoticed but who are now revealed to her in compassion and in… sadness.

Come closer to us

We saw you grow up

The dairy farm is contaminated, the cows die, and the calves become orphaned. The fish die in the river’s poisoned waters. Magdalena died because her spirit was crushed. Now, the time has come for the whole world to know what was done to them. Animals and humans illuminate each other’s stories.


The film began as a “subconscious exercise,” and it unfolded from one simple phrase: “the cow spoke.”

“The challenge was always how to unite the animal and human worlds, but they were always there,” director Francisca Alegría said in an online HFPA interview. “As I grew older and as I understood that I didn’t want to make films just for my own purpose, but I wanted to talk about subjects that get to me – the cow grew [to be] a symbol of a bigger part of our natural world.”

The Chilean native grew up loving horses at her grandparents’ barn, and “never thought much about cows.” But with time, she realized “how much they do for us [even though they are] always mistreated, always on the side.”

“The cows are like hostages, they don’t have free will, they’re part of a system that keeps them trapped,” she continued. “In the dairy farms, no one is hitting them or making them suffer. But when you understand that they’re basically ‘raped’ every time they are inseminated, and that [there is] a whole system where the lactating cows and [suckling] babies are separated … it feels awful!”

The cow’s unnoticed life draws a parallel with “how women have been treated,” the director remarked. “How mothers give and give but are kept in the background.” Magdalena is seen as a spirited woman who fell in love with a man who could not understand her, and “was trapped in a life that did not allow her to express herself freely.”

Whether human or animal, oppression leads to a longing for relief. Magdalena’s death by suicide seemed like a natural conclusion. “For people who suffer from depression, there is always this tiredness,” mentioned the filmmaker. “You cannot keep going with your mind, with your heart… It’s the same with the animals: ‘we can’t go on, we can’t!’”

Yet, while drowning in the river has a connotation of rebelliousness, it is an act of reclaiming oneself. “We, women, the water and the womb have cycles we never question. [Magdalena’s] death feels very feminine. For me, the water was going to contain her for all those years until she was ready to come back,” Alegría smiled.

Even though the family’s drama runs parallel to that of the animals throughout the film, in one bittersweet scene the two converge. Heartbroken Cecilia visits the cow pen, and there she finds a motherless calf. She stretches her arm out as if to pet it, and the calf sucks on her fingers wishing it could breastfeed. She bursts into tears. At that moment there is nothing that separates her and the baby cow. Both are orphaned, both wishing for what they cannot have – their mother’s love.

“I believe in the subtle world,” the director offered. “I believe that we have a connection with the world that is not manifested in the material but is around us and is helping us, teaching us, and loving us. I think that we have forgotten this – we, ‘western people.’ But we do have our primal instinct and the heritage of our indigenous communities.”

“In the race of becoming owners of things and colonizers and the best scientists, we have forgotten being compassionate,” she continued putting a hand to her chest. “That’s where we got lost, where we stopped seeing what was in front of us. We stopped seeing the cow as another being – we just saw it as a utility for making money.”

The 36-year-old filmmaker grew up happily, surrounded by family and nature. Yet she too, like everyone else, must now carry the burden of the knowledge that responsibility for the worsening ecological catastrophe includes humankind as a whole. In the face of such a realization, how can one still find joy in life?

“I’ve found that in order to feel joyful, I had to accept something first, I had to stop resisting,” she replied with characteristic thoughtfulness. “If we accept the world that we’re living in, if we get past pointing fingers, and we make ourselves part of the equation – this [would be] the first step towards doing what we can but also enjoying the world as it is.”

Once, when she and her sister were kids playing at the barn, Alegría eyed a cow skull wedged on the roof of a stable. She determined to get it and convinced her sister to help her climb on a haystack. As she finally got the skull into her hands, she heard a scream. It was her sister who fell off the roof and who would have to be rushed to the hospital a few moments later. “[The incident] got stuck in my brain because I learned that sometimes things come with their opposite. Something that fills you up with joy and excitement and pride has another side of pain and guilt.”

Wiser than her years, Alegría sees filmmaking like the cow skull she once held in her hands – as a source of delight but also strife, generating both, simultaneously and inseparably.

“The world was never perfect, really, there were always issues of some sort,” she concluded. “And this is ours at this time. When you stop seeing the problem outside of yourself, then you can say, okay, I am responsible in some way, so what can I do? If we all found a way to contribute, I think that the weight we feel would get less and less, and we’d find joy in making what we love but also in the service of something bigger than us.”