The sky is deep red. In a low-angle shot, the backlighting casts a donkey’s figure in front of a wind turbine. Don Quixote will surely come to the minds of modern viewers, even if this knight’s melancholic bearing cannot be found in the frame. On the ground, a puddle of red water in an all-red world reflects the turbine’s sharp, spinning blade. A bird falls onto the scarlet water, dead. We are definitely not in 1605. But we are also not in 1966, the year Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar was released. The calendar marks 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) last March, and the birds do not stop crashing into pools of blood.
The titular protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s film, EO, named for the distinct sound of his bray — eeeeeee-ooooooooh — is portrayed by a coffle of donkeys: Hola, Takko, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela. They share the role and burden of being an almost voiceless people-voice [povo-voz], becoming actors whose entire faces (the aspect ratio is changed from 2.39:1 to 1.5:1, the latter being better for framing a donkey’s head) and bodies do not, however, resist being captured. Since the film ends in Italy, their bray also says “io”, meaning “I” in Italian. Hola, Takko, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela become indiscernible, but not homogenous, never identical; they become EO, a more-than-human utterance, because something passes from one to the next. And they have been passing it for quite some time. “The face is a horror story,”1 Deleuze and Guattari said, but the face was Christ’s, and animals are not part of this story except as possible becomings. Days before being crucified, this same Christ, as we know, rode into Jerusalem on a prophesied, fleshly donkey (whereabouts unknown). Adrift in EO’s oceanic eyes, a horror story tells a much older tale.
According to recent studies conducted in Toulouse, France, Equus asinus, unlike various self- or co-domesticated species, had undergone the process of domestication or co-domestication only once, at around 5000 BC in what we now call Kenya and the Horn of Africa; this means that, for at least 3,000 years before humans rode them, donkeys were already familiar with the yoke on their backs. Humans and donkeys have walked, literally walked, together — or one, always the same one, has often transported the other — for millennia, possibly since the Sahara became larger and drier. From then on, donkeys have spread across the whole world. They are able to carry up to two thirds of their own bodyweight, though the equine authority has not been able to verify this limit; they can spend between two to three days without water, losing up to 25% of their weight from dehydration but regaining it rapidly once they can rehydrate.2 They are resilient, docile, known for their simple eating (“eater of rags and old paper,” as Luiz Gonzaga sang), and, because of all this, profoundly abused.
There is no name for EO’s kin or their forced hybrids — when left to their own devices, Equus caballus and Equus asinus do not tend to have sexual intercourse, according to what I’ve heard from breeders — that is not also a slur. In the world of ancient Greece, they figured among the lowest of the mounted animals, being considered stupid, gluttonous, socially second-rate, and comparable to slaves and women.3 When a curse accidentally transforms Lucius, the protagonist of Apuleius’s second-century Roman novel the Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, he receives the cruelest possible treatment. And, even though Balaam’s jenny had seen an angel and spoken human language, even though the donkey is the only non-kosher animal whose firstborn must be redeemed, even though one had provided Mary refuge on its back as it walked with Joseph to Egypt, even though Christ himself had triumphantly rode one, and even though Balthazar, even Balthazar, had been baptized, martyrized, and canonized as a saint among sheep, none of these achievements ever prevented his kin, who yielded countless lineages fundamental to the building of settlements and to innumerable human pilgrimages, from being despised.
Skolimoski’s previous film 11 Minutes (11 minut, 2015) contains brief moments in which the camera follows the perspective of a dog, one of the characters involved in the film’s final catastrophe. In EO, the plot is very simple: due to a law prohibiting the use of animals in circuses and similar shows, a donkey is separated from his stage companion, a young girl named Kasandra to whom he is extremely attached and who loves him back. From then on, he navigates various owners and, above all, situations to look for her. The cinematography is daring: it doesn’t seek to occupy EO’s perspective, “seeing as a donkey sees.” The camera approaches EO, observing the world alongside him without replacing his gaze, yet it reveals something that lies between his emotional state and that of the viewer. This is an act of boldness — even bolder when we consider that Skolimowski is eighty-four — able to create an almost amorphous strangeness, which does not simply reveal human cruelty, as already mentioned, but also establishes complex moments in which cohabitation is at stake.
EO opens with a dazzling red strobe: the performance is an iteration of the ancient bond between women and donkeys, which provoked men’s jealousy in Ancient Greece and in twentieth-century France. A nighttime jaunt, freedom and escape, direct heir of Charles Laughton, in which animals keep watch in the dark, nocturnal sentinels along a river that fascinate and terrify EO — or perhaps just the viewer? All of this splendor is interrupted by piercing green rays, laser beams that cut through the deepest darkness, heralding Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. A fox is shot. “It’s a harsh world for little things”: Lilian Gish’s words echo somewhere in the history of cinema. EO moves on, resolute. A drone flies through a red forest, flames created by anthropocenic filters that turn what had once been life into a circle of hell. EO is fearful, and he continues. He dreams, dreams of tenderness, of Kasandra, of grass. Of carrot cakes. Unusual angles of nimble, more-than-human puzzles capable of destabilizing an everyday scene. Seeing the immense world reduced to what can be glimpsed through cracks. Encountering the unluckiest, those who linger or just pass by. The caged, the noisy, the desperate, those whose silence alone is enough to infer the origin of their fear and their destiny. To follow the donkeys at their own pace, to look with a camera’s eyes into the eyes of the donkeys, which gently return the gesture profoundly, deeply tragic and beautiful.
EO is in front of a dam, the ferocious and controlled (controlled?) flow of water resembling a sky that is sometimes dark, sometimes full of white clouds. Are there still axes to ensure what is below and what is above? And what is a donkey doing there? But wouldn’t the question be instead: why is a dam there? In 1951, six years before finishing his classic film The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge), Albert Lamorisse directed a film starring a donkey, a foal, with many donkeys in the cast. Bim, The Little Donkey (Bim, le petit âne), an extremely orientalist film, tells the story of an Indian island where every boy owned a little donkey whom he loved and who loved him in return. At the climax of the film, Bim, the most beautiful of them all, must be saved from butchers who have already set out with the intention of taking him to the mainland and turning him into salami. All the final action takes place at sea, with Bim being saved and the boys and little donkeys living happily ever after. As we know, the butchers would not be committing anything out of the ordinary: the meat of Equidae has been consumed by human animals for a long time. The theme of donkeys’ abuse — their transformation into sausage, death by exhaustion, being beaten to death, and other sorts of cruelty — features in a number of films in which they are prominent characters or protagonists. One exception is Anselmo Duarte’s The Given Word (O pagador de promessas, 1962), in which the friendship between the human Zé-do-Burro and the donkey Nicolau — who never appears on screen — is capable of blurring the sacred boundaries between animal and human, Christianity and Candomblé. A man choosing to martyr himself for an animal instead of sacrificing it to God is the ultimate transgression. It is no wonder that, in the end, the police get involved and Zé can only fulfill his promise when he changes places with Nicolau, when, like a donkey, his soul is torn from his body.
In the Soviet film Magdana’s Donkey (Lurja magdani, 1955), directed by Rezo Chkheidze and Tengiz Abuladze, a family comprising a single mother and two children cares for an abandoned donkey on the brink of death, only to lose it, by a judge’s orders, to its wealthy and wicked owner. Magdana, the titular widow, sells yogurt in the city, and Lurja, the donkey, becomes a blessing for the family; however, the product Magdana sells, one assumes, is not made of donkey milk, even though it, along mare milk, is the closest in composition to the breastmilk of Homo sapiens. Cleopatra is said to have bathed in donkey’s milk and kept a herd of 300 for milking; Pliny the Elder prescribed this milk for a series of illnesses, from poisoning to asthma to gynecological problems and everything in between. The market for donkey’s milk remains healthy, having earned twenty-two million USD in 2022, and is expected to increase in the coming years; this is nothing compared to that of cow milk (two billion USD), but you can’t earn the title of most exploited species for everything.
The fates of EO and his bovine colleagues intersect at the end of Skolimowski’s film. An inter-title announces that “this film was made out of our love for animals and nature.” Many have spoken of EO as an update of Balthazar, especially in light of some touching statements made by the director with respect to Bresson’s film — it had been the only time a film had moved him to tears in the theater. Skolimowski has also spoken about how humans torture other-than-humans, and he has denounced the meat-industrial complex as barbaric. These are issues that cause discomfort in most well-mannered conversation circles. They tend to bristle critics, who fail to find solid ground when animals are no longer allegorical, or when environmental catastrophe is felt in full force. In Sanctuary (2017), directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, we follow the day-to-day of a network of donkey sanctuaries in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. Skolimowski’s use of the word torture is not an exaggeration, though in EO the extent to which he spares not only his actors but also his viewers from witnessing such brutalities is clear. In sanctuaries, we come to learn, there are donkeys who are beaten, who are left to die due to being unable to work, or who arrive after have being stabbed over one hundred times in a children’s game. There are donkeys with all sorts of known and unknown scars hidden under their coats, but attempted human affection makes their memories of the wound, marked in their flesh, return, and the animal withdraws.
In one of EO’s most striking moments, EO is brutally beaten by a group of drunken hooligans. Any encounter with the literature on donkeys, whether scientific or artistic; with any film featuring donkeys; or with any notion with respect to the reality of donkeys reveals that none of this is an exaggeration. The violence takes place outside of the frame. In the following sequence, a sort of small robotic dog, once again in deep red light, struggles to stand up and, once it does, runs desperately out of mechanical breath across a lawn, the same lawn where EO was left to die. This robot is EO, with the last of his strength. But not in the poor sense of some artificial intelligence or mystifying concept of instinct. He is simply the beast-machine, and the beast-machine is alive. Listen closely, heirs of Descartes: it is impossible to tear out an animal’s soul, even if only the carcass remains.
In the so-called developed world, the donkey lost its job. It survives doing heavy labor and, as a rule, suffers abuse in parts of the world that are, let’s say, less wealthy. In Brazil, where it was “the greatest developer of the sertão,” as, once again, Luiz Gonzaga sang, the ass lost out to developmentalism. First came bicycles. Then, motorcycles. Donkeys were being overlooked, becoming obsolescent and abandoned on roadsides to try their own luck — or die. In Ceará, the local DMV collects them in the thousands, in the worst conditions. A few sanctuaries take them, but money, along with social interest and sway, is scarce — after all, the donkey is considered a second-rate animal. After some legal disputes involving violated court decisions, there is currently a debate in the National Congress of Brazil regarding a bill that would prohibit the slaughter of donkeys throughout the entire country. Meanwhile, Brazil continues to engage in (largely illegal) donkey slaughter and, between 2002 and 2019, has exported these animals to countries such as Italy, Portugal, and China. However, restrictions imposed by the European Union have granted China the top spot, as there is a high demand for ejiao, a type of gelatin extracted from donkey hides and is believed to possess medicinal properties. Between 2015 and 2019, approximately 100,000 animals were slaughtered, endangering the Brazilian donkey population, estimated at 400,000.
EO has lost neither his Don Quixote nor his Dulcinea. He is not facing a windmill, awaiting his master. EO walks alone, at a steady pace. He saw the turbine kill birds. He saw the forest burn, the gunshots in the middle of the night. He became a machine, made flesh reborn in his soul. He saw humans, ecstatic, delirious, mad, and hungry. He knows the Anthropocene and dreams of Kasandra, his flawed circus star who looks him in the eye without foreseeing the worst, but who loves him and spoils him with carrot cakes.
He will never meet her again.
In Brazil, they are 400,000.