Did you ever have existential questions about donkeys? No? Well, move on.
Or not. The truth is, you haven’t seen anything like Do Donkeys Act? It’s a documentary about donkeys (a donkumentary?), made reputedly by humans (Ashley Sabin and David Redmon), for the enjoyment of – donkeys? There are no talking head interviews in the film, very little input from people, period. There are, however, extended shots of donkeys just “being.” Filmed on a few different donkey sanctuaries where tired and abused donkeys go to live out the last years of their lives, there are no donkey facts, no never-before-seen donkeys in the wild. What the film does offer is plenty of space to contemplate the life and death of these beasts of burden.
How do donkeys cry? Do they tremble inside? Do they dream? These are the types of insights and reflexive cues provided by poetic narration provided by Willem Dafoe. We might spend several minutes just gazing upon a bunch of donkeys eating communally from a trough. We may consider the different utterances we hear and attempt to interpret each one. The donkeys are communicating – are you listening?
The documentary takes the humble donkey and elevates him to the star of his own movie. I started to wonder, listening to them honk and hee-haw, if they were perhaps translating the poetry we were hearing from Dafoe. But then, in a mind-bender, I wondered: is it maybe we who are translating their poetry? Mind blown.
Although its run time is brief and it takes a while to get into its unique rhythm, Do Donkeys Act? has an embracing kind of empathy that came to be quite moving. I’m not sure I’ve come away with specific meaning, but I’ve just spent 72 minutes thinking about donkeys, which is 72 more than I’ve ever given them before, and there’s a kind of grace in that, triumph for the film makers, dignity for the film’s brave subjects.
This review first appeared at Cinema Axis, where you can find lots more excellent Hot Docs coverage.