Wednesday, 19 April 2017

DO DONKEYS ACT? - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Grace of Ungulates

These two sweeties from Do Donkeys Act? in identical pose
I've seen my own sweeties strike on my hobby rescue farm.

Do Donkeys Act? (2016)
Dir. David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Starring: Willem Dafoe

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Obviously these other beings do not speak with a human tongue, they do not speak in words. They might speak in song, like many birds, or in rhythm, like the crickets or the ocean waves. They may speak a language of movements and gestures, or articulate themselves in shifting shadows... Step into shade. Listen close." - David Abram, Becoming Animal, opening title card in the film Do Donkeys Act?
Full Disclosure: I own donkeys.

Even if I didn't, I'd love this gloriously poetic film. Much like God Knows Where I Am, last year's masterpiece by the Wider Brothers, Do Donkeys Act? is a documentary that blasts through the preconceptions of the form and delivers precisely the genuine, and I think, true promise of cinema - that of an art form infused with lyrical, almost dactylic qualities. This is not to say that such works must be bereft of "narrative", some of the very best which display these properties embrace a dramatic form. When you see movies like this, you know you are in the presence of greatness.

Do Donkeys Act? is nothing if not great.

The unmistakeable eyes and demeanour of a poet.

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, the directing team of Girl Model, 2011's powerful, moving exploration of Japan's exploitation of teenage girls from Eastern Europe, train their cameras upon altogether different living beings that have been desecrated, abused and subjected to appalling inhumanity.


On the surface, the film, like the best art, is simple. We follow donkeys from their admittance to a series of heavenly refuges, the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, England, Cork, Ireland, Guelph, Canada and upstate New York, and then through a variety of medical/grooming procedures, their daily lives and finally, the sheer peace of what will be their existence until they leave this Earth. Simple? Yes, but as such, it yields a bounty of complexities - some fact-based, others philosophical and finally, pure, raw emotion.

Of course, it is lovely to see the donkeys interacting with their kind, caring human charges, but even more astonishing is seeing these sweet four-legged ungulate mammals communicating with each other.

Though it is a work that blends the great pioneering approaches of Michel Brault and the other legendary Québécois practitioners of Cinéma Direct via the National Film Board of Canada (NFB/ONF) as well as the great Cinéma Vérité artists Chris Marker and Jean Rouch, I was even reminded of the unfettered filmmaking style of cinema's greatest storyteller Robert Bresson. This is not only because of Bresson's dazzling Au hasard Balthazar (its main character being, yes, a donkey) and the occasional references by Redmon and Sabin's film to the Bresson picture, but like Bresson we experience both emotion and ideas by the power of the image itself and the lean stripping away of overt manipulation.

Donkeys living in peace. As should all creatures.

Happily, one thing that Do Donkey's Act? does not strip away is the use of words. Though the film's soundtrack is exquisitely laden with natural sounds (most notably the beauty of the donkeys' braying), there is a "score" of lovely poetic voice-over performed with power and grace over images by Willem Dafoe. I watched this film not knowing until the end title credits that Dafoe was the voice speaking the "poetry" of the language. This was an extra-special treat for me. Throughout the movie I kept thinking, "Jesus, who is this dude? He's amazing!" Well, and so, it turned out, he is (was). In a way, this overall approach reminded me of the brilliant way Terence Davies used the poetry as "score" in his Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion.

When images and words are infused with poetic grace, you soar in ways that so few films can inspire. Here, however, we have a subject that's more than worthy of this, creatures of the most sublime qualities of grace.

I know all too well. After I write this review, I'm on my way to feed carrots to Shasta and Cindy, my sweet, gentle and graceful donkeys.


Do Donkeys Act? is a Blue Ice Docs release and enjoys its North American Premiere at Hot Docs 2017 in Toronto.

After its first steps, the baby rests.