"Plunge into the intrinsic range of unfamiliar expressions, inside this wild sanctuary that offers a sonorious glimpse into the reveries, melodies, and rhapsodies of a great donkey orchestra."
What is undoubtedly one of the strangest documentaries of 2017, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's portrait of empathy on the most maligned of beasts, the humble Donkey, plays out like a fly-on-the-tail Frederick Wiseman film. Do Donkey's Act? is kind of an inversion of Titicut Follies through the needles-eye of Au Hasard Balthazar, only ponderously plush with purple prose, narrated with picnic panache by none other than Willem Dafoe.
It takes about 10 minutes or so to get into the rhythm of the film, but once you hang-five on the vibe (bro), the unconventional presentation becomes weirdly addicting. Seventy One minutes feels right, but I could have handled double that.
"Step into their shade."
Filmed with a precision designed to capture maximum empathy, designed slow things down to the point where you can actually take a long look at what is typically an unremarkable beast, the hypnotic hullabaloo of the vociferations and vocal sing-songs of Bobby Peru keeps a curious onlooker on their toes. Is it OK to get a chuckle out of an compassionte endeavour, such as a Donkey sanctuary? That is the provocation here. It's kind of marvellous in a way a movie seems to quote Robert Bresson, T.S. Elliot and Dr. Seuss all simultaneously. It achieves a dignity to the animal by way of transcending absurdity.
"Pleasurable palettes stimulate dancing ears."
Self-described, with more than a bit of self-awareness, as ethno-poetic-animal-fiction, Do Donkeys Act? was filmed across several Donkey sanctuaries, in Cork, Ireland to Brisbane, Australia, Upstate New York, and Guelph, Canada, over a period of five years. It makes wonderful use of macro lenses, sit-and-stare medium shots, and no-fuss-no-muss industrial farm mise-en-scene. the animals themself, in the process of healing, recuperation, grooming and dentistry go, as Mark Twain said, briskly, put on no airs, are docile, though opinionated.
When it goes to such an avant garde use of the domentary format, come for the cinematography, stay for the balladry and doggerel. Empathy shall be your treasure.
"A brute frenzy of speculative vibrancy. Deferential contact with beasts of burden. Embrace the donkey in the knock-down box. It was, indeed, a hairy massacre."
Review originally published during Hot Docs in April 2017. The film opens in Toronto, Canada on Friday, September 29 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
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