Hot Docs Review: Do Donkeys Act? (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, 2017)

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In your younger days, at zoos, did you ever imagine the fate of the animals that brightened your half-day, in 10 to 20 years? It’s a strange question, in spirit similar to “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound”? If we go further with the anthropomorphization – does the tree hurt? Do Donkeys Act if no one is watching? This film is a meditation on these oblique questions, seen from the inside of donkey rescue centres around the world.

Rather than asking why, it’s perhaps easier to question why not donkeys. They aren’t often thought highly of. They aren’t typical mascots of sports teams, and have rarely been imbued with any honorable ideals unless steadfast stubbornness is a virtue. And unlike bird or whale songs, all that braying can be harsh and almost too primal to relate to as a human. The fact that asses still bookend jeers and jokes all around the world in many cultures is telling. But of course they are just as adjective as that horse on the Ferrari badge. And all any human has ever done with either is to burden them – with weights, status, morals, and other mostly human concerns. Without all the projections, even donkeys can be interesting.

As with many engrossing and immersive projects, Do Donkeys Act requires a degree of patience. Watching veterinarians’ and donkeys’ daily routine has never topped any list of things to do before one dies. But we (some of us) naturally become observant and empathetic if there are no immediate alternatives. This film will definitely draw a self-selected crowd. As a conservation slash humanitarian piece, Do Donkeys Act is indeed very charming. Many things magically transform when put in front of a portrait lens with good bokeh. My problem, which will perhaps be other people’s delight, is the poetic narration courtesy of Willem Dafoe. If the whole idea of removing imposed morals and emotions to see whether “donkeys act” of their own volition was the aim, then the pointed prose instructing the viewers on how to interpret donkey behavior is a direct, condescending antithesis. Anyone who volunteered to watch donkeys bray, walk, defecate, and give-birth for 70 odd minutes likely pride themselves in forming cogent thoughts. This film will do just fine without anyone complementing a donkey’s “hidden dynamism” as it trots along. Of course, if you are looking for an Ode to Beasts of Burden Past, this is perfect. Personally, I’d rather imagine the smells in those rescue centres than be told of it.

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Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews

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