It may officially be the year of the tiger in the Chinese Zodiac calendar, but in the world of film, it’s definitely the year of the wee donkey.
The humble equine features in films such as Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” and even Neon’s “Triangle of Sadness,” but nowhere is this loyal beast of burden in the spotlight more than Janus Films and Sideshow’s “EO,” from legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski.
The film — which shared the Cannes Jury Prize with Félix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s “The Eight Mountains” — shares a vision of modern Europe through the prism of a gray donkey, EO, who is torn away by animal activists from his beloved circus performer owner, and passed from hand to hand in the service of humans. On his life’s path, EO meets all sorts of people and experiences joy and pain, as well as disasters and unexpected bliss.
Skolimowski, an avowed animal lover, took inspiration from Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “Au Hasard Balthazar,” which he saw soon after its 1966 release. “This was the lesson I got from Bresson,” says Skolimowski. “That an animal hero is able to move you even more than a human hero.”
And indeed, the vulnerable EO is about as innocent a protagonist as they come, which makes the cruelties he endures by humans all the more abhorrent. Skolimowski warns, however, that he used six donkeys to portray EO in the film, and none were harmed in the production.
“EO” is playing at London Film Festival, New York Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival. It will open in New York on Nov. 18 and in Los Angeles on Dec. 2.
Watch the official trailer below, and read on for Variety’s interview with Skolimowski and his co-writer and co-producer Ewa Piaskowska.
What drew you to this subject matter?
Skolimowski: I saw the film by Robert Bresson a year after it was made, and in 1966, Cahiers du Cinema published a list of the 10 best films made that year, and Bresson’s film was number one on that list, and my film was second on the list. I was in Paris at the time, and I’d seen the Cahiers du Cinema [article] with my own eyes. When I saw who was in first place, I immediately went to the cinema to see the film. I was very impressed by the film. In an interview I gave soon after I saw the film, I mentioned that it was the only occasion that, at the end of the film, tears appeared in my eyes. This was the lesson I got from Bresson: That an animal hero is able to move you even more than a human hero.
Why did you choose to anthropomorphize EO. There are a number of flashback scenes that suggest he has real feelings and has cherished memories of his former owner.
Skolimowski: We wanted to have an animal as a hero of the movie. This film is connected to my negative attitude to linear storytelling and narratives, which constitute 99% of film narratives. There’s a repetition of a certain pattern of telling this story: two people meet, they fall in love, start to date, they’re very happy, then something happens and they’re not happy anymore. They try to part, but their feelings are stronger than the need for parting. We know those stories so well that after 10 minutes of watching a film in the cinema, we know what’s going to happen next. Our boredom with that narrative made us explore all the ways to find different ways to narrate the film, and we thought having an animal as a center of the story would give a new way to do this.
Piaskowska: And just as important is our absolutely genuine affection towards animals, our appreciation of nature. We have a house in the forest in which we’ve lived for quite a few years. We’ve always had an animal next to our side. The relationship we have with a creature who doesn’t use language, but you empathize with it and its psychological space and complexity of its emotions. It’s just as important as what Jerzy was just saying.
Skolimowski: It’s a special experience. When we leave the house, instead of passing cars and people on the street, we see hares, foxes, deer in the forest. It’s a special gift. We can experience nature as it is, not as it was transformed by human beings.
Piaskowska: Our dog, a German shepherd — Buffon — is also acting in the film.
How did you find working so closely and intimately with a specific species? I know donkeys are very intelligent but they’re quite stubborn. What were the challenges?
Skolimowski: Against the popular opinion that donkeys are stubborn and stupid, I disagree. Stubborn? Yes, sometimes very stubborn. But not stupid. I found them extremely intelligent animals.
Piaskowska: The most important thing for us was not to create any suffering for the animal, so each location that we shot in, we chose animals that were nearby, who were of the same species. It was important to have a male and female because they have a particular energy going between them.
Skolimowski: We chose the Sardinian breed of donkey. The reason for choosing that particular breed is that they are very popular in Italy and since this is a co-production between Poland and Italy, we knew we’d be shooting at the end in Italy, so we had to make sure we had the similar donkey there.
How many handlers did you have working with you?
Skolimowski: Each donkey that appeared in the film had its own handler or carer who would bring it to the set in special trailers, who would feed it and prepare it. Who would teach it how to cross from point A to point B. They were in touch with vets, too. Thanks to that, we avoided any health issues with the animals. The entire time, we had vets on the set taking care of all the animals.
Piaskowska: They’re our stars. The whole set — all the actors and crews — evolve around the donkeys.
Do you consider this a pessimistic story about humanity and the treatment of animals?
Skolimowski: The whole film is dedicated to the idea of changing people’s attitude towards animals, to actually make people aware that animals, like humans, are full of feelings and sentiments and shouldn’t be treated like objects. They need interest and sensitivity in handling, a feeling of safety and compassion. I wanted to generate a sympathetic feeling between the people watching the movie and our main hero, the donkey, and other animals. We didn’t want to burden the story with a quasi-political appeal to the cinemagoer to show kindness to animals. We wanted to attach people to the animal, and create a bond between the people who watch the film and the animal. And when I achieved that objective of creating that bond between people who watched the film and animals, to understand that attachment, I wanted to shake the people watching the film so they can actually reflect on their attitude to animals when they leave the cinema.