It may officially be the year of the tiger in the Chinese zodiac calendar, but in the world of movies, it’s definitely the year of the little donkey.
Humble horses appear in films like Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” and even Neon’s “Triangle of Sorrow,” but nowhere is this spotlight beast of burden more visible than Janus Films and Sideshow’s EO, directed by legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski.
The film — which shared a jury prize at Cannes with Felix van Groningen and Charlotte Vandermerch’s The Eight Mountains — shares a vision of modern Europe from the perspective of a gray donkey, EO, that animal activists ripped from a beloved circus performance. Owner, and moved from hand to hand in the service of humans. In his life path, EO meets all kinds of people and experiences joy and pain, as well as unexpected disasters and bliss.
Skolimowski, an animal lover, drew inspiration from Robert Bryson’s masterpiece “Au Hasard Balthazar,” which he saw shortly after its 1966 release. “That was the lesson I took from Bryson,” Skolimowski says. “This animal hero is more capable of moving you than a human hero.”
Indeed, weak EO is as innocent a hero as they come, which makes the cruelty to which they are subjected even more abhorrent. Skolimowski cautions, however, that he used six donkeys to portray EO on the film, and none of them were harmed in production.
“EO” is shown at the London Film Festival, New York Film Festival, and Mill Valley Film Festival. It opens in New York on November 18 and in Los Angeles on December 2.
Watch the official trailer below, and read on miscellaneous Interview with Skolimowski and co-author and co-producer Ewa Piaskowski.
What drew you to this topic?
SkolimowskiI watched Robert Bresson’s movie a year after it was made, and in 1966 Cahiers du Cinema published a list of the 10 best films made that year. Bresson’s movie ranked first on that list, and mine was number two on the list. I was in Paris at the time, and I saw brochures du cinema [article] With my own eyes. When I saw who was in first place, I immediately went to the cinema to see the movie. I was very impressed with the movie. In an interview I gave shortly after watching the movie, she mentioned that it was the only occasion where tears appeared in my eyes at the end of the movie. That was the lesson I got from Bryson: that an animal hero is more capable of moving you than a human hero.
Why did you choose the embodiment of EO? There are a number of flashback scenes that suggest he has real feelings and holds fond memories of his previous owner.
Skolimowski: We wanted to have an animal as the hero of the movie. This film relates to my negative attitude towards storytelling and linear stories, which make up 99% of the film’s novels. There is a repetition of a certain pattern of telling this story: two people meet, fall in love, start dating, are very happy, then something happens and they are not happy anymore. They try to separate, but their feelings are stronger than the need for parting. We know these stories so well that after 10 minutes of watching a movie in the cinema, we know what happens next. Our boredom with this narrative made us explore all the ways to find different ways to tell the film, and we thought having an animal as the center of the story would give a new way to do that.
Piaskowska: And just as important, our wholly genuine affection for animals, our appreciation for nature. We have a house in the woods that we lived in for a few years. We’ve always had an animal by our side. The relationship between us and a creature that does not use language, but you empathize with it, its psychological space and the complexity of its emotions – it is no less important than what Jerzy was just saying.
Skolimowski: It is a special experience. When we leave the house, instead of passing cars and people on the street, we see rabbits, foxes and deer in the forest. It is a special gift. We can experience nature as it is, not as humans change it.
Piaskowska: Our dog, the German Shepherd – Buffon – is also represented in the film.
How did you find working closely and intimately with a particular genre? I know donkeys are very smart but they are very stubborn. What are the challenges?
Skolimowski: general opinion [is] That donkeys are stubborn and stupid, but I do not agree. stubborn? Yes, sometimes very stubborn. But not stupid. I found them to be very intelligent animals.
Piaskowska: The most important thing for us was not to create any animal suffering, so everywhere we filmed, we chose the nearby animals, which were of the same species. It was important to have a male and a female because they both have a certain energy that travels between them.
Skolimowski: We chose the Sardinian donkey breed. The reason for choosing this particular breed is because it is very popular in Italy and since this is a co-production between Poland and Italy we knew we would eventually shoot in Italy so we had to make sure we had a similar donkey there.
How many therapists work with you?
Skolimowski: Each donkey featured in the movie had its own handler or caregiver who would bring it to the location in special trailers, who would feed and groom it, and who would teach it how to cross from point A to point B. Get in touch with your vets, too. Thanks to that, we avoided any health problems with animals. The whole time, we had vets in the group taking care of all the animals.
Piaskowska: They are our stars. The entire group – all actors and crews – develops around donkeys.
Is this a pessimistic story about humanity and the treatment of animals?
Skolimowski: The entire movie is dedicated to the idea of changing people’s attitude towards animals, to make people aware that animals, like humans, are full of emotions and feelings and should not be treated as objects. They need attention and sensitivity in handling, a sense of security and compassion. I wanted to create a feeling of sympathy between the people watching the movie and our main hero, the Donkey, and the other animals.
We didn’t want to burden the story with a quasi-political allure for moviegoers to show kindness to animals. We wanted to connect people to the animal, and to create a bond between the people watching the movie and the animal. And when I achieved this goal of creating that bond between the people who saw the movie and the animals, to understand that connection, I wanted to shake the people watching the movie so that they could actually think about their attitude to the animals when they left the cinema.