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Review: Do Donkeys Act?

September 29, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmed over five years at four different donkey sanctuaries in the UK, Ireland, New York State and Guelph, Ontario, Do Donkeys Act? is an experimental art documentary that offers a quiet yet often profound exploration of animal sentience, guided along by Willem Dafoe’s poetic narration.

These sanctuaries provide refuge for donkeys that have been abused or abandoned, and Do Donkeys Act? takes us into their world.  The patient and observant footage that has been captured by filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin helps us to view them with both compassion and emotional clarity, while allowing us to contemplate the human-animal bond.

We see the interactions that the donkeys have with each other as they eat, sleep and roam around, communicating through a language of whinnies and brays that carry their own complex set of rhythms and mannerisms, despite being unintelligible to us.  The humans that we see in the film, who range from sanctuary staff to veterinarians, aren’t interviewed and almost never speak, keeping the focus on the animals and the wordless interactions they have with the people caring for them.

The film mesmerizes not only by exploring fundamental questions of the emotion, intelligence and sentience of animals, but also with its beautifully composed images and scenes that find their own rhythm by stretching on for minutes at a time.  The result is a film that plays like a nature documentary by way of Werner Herzog, while still delivering its own unique viewing experience.  What really makes the film stand out is Willem Dafoe’s droll and existentially inquisitive narration, poetically giving voice to the thoughts that we might have watching these images.

The narration is sometimes playful – “pleasurable palettes stimulate dancing ears,” his voice intones over an oddly captivating long shot of donkeys eating in unison from their freshly filled troughs – and quite often profound.  Animal life is described as “an innate choreography” as we watch a young foal be born into the world, still attached to the mother by an umbilical chord, and struggling to stand up for the first time.  It’s in moments like these, coupled with the changing seasons that provide the backdrop of the film’s deceptively simple narrative, that Do Donkeys Act? reveals itself to be about nothing less than the circle of life, and the bonds that tie all living creatures together.

The film somewhat playfully asks if donkeys act, but it’s really a look at the rhythms of their lives and, yes, even their humanity.  This is a gorgeously filmed and thought provoking study of sentience, allowing us to look deeper into the eyes of these “beasts of burden” and see the life staring back at us, as Willem Dafoe’s narration enhances and never overshadows what we see.  And what we see is that these donkeys – who are always present for the camera regardless of whether or not they are fully aware of it – are alive, and fully capable of feeling both pain and contentment.

Do Donkeys Act? is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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