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Do Donkeys Act? A Myth-Busting Film about Endearing Beings

A new film about these amazing animals allows them to show us who they truly are

I've always found donkeys to be fascinating beings. Three of my favorite books on these frequently misrepresented and highly abused animals are Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison's Donkey: The Mystique of Equus Asinus, Andy Merrifield's The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World, and Jill Bough's Donkey

With permission of David Redmon
Source: With permission of David Redmon

I recently watched a film called Do Donkeys Act?, the description for which reads:

“Burned, beaten, abandoned, donkeys look back at us humans with indifference, and bray.” David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s DO DONKEYS ACT— filmed over 5 years—subtly subverts the notion of the “dumb beast” as it captures donkeys communicating emotionally with each other in the midst of healing from human cruelty and neglect. A poetic text threads through scenes “acted” by donkeys, a rhythmic script commentary voiced by Willem Dafoe.

I was so moved by this film, I asked it's co-writer, co-producer, and co-director, David Redmon, if he could answer a few questions about this myth-busting and deeply moving film, and he agreed. Here's what he wrote as answers to the questions I sent to him.

Why did you make Do Donkeys Act? Who was involved in its production? 

We focused our lens and sound recorder on donkeys because of their bray. Late one night we listened to a YouTube video of a donkey braying, and at that point we knew we had to make a film. Their varied sounds are musical and enchanting. Ashley was pregnant with our first child so it seemed like the kind of film on which we could embark. Turns out we didn’t premiere the film until we had our second child! Sometimes these documentaries take a while to simmer.1

What did you learn about the correlation between donkeys and humans in this film? How has this changed your perception toward donkeys?

Do Donkeys Act?’s ethno-poetic-animal-fiction takes its playfully self-reflexive cues from Jean Rouch and Chris Marker. Encouraging us to respect a major language barrier we might not otherwise consider—the mystery and intrigue of donkey utterances—Do Donkeys Act? invites us to "step into their shade, listen closely" as we attune to a series of dramatic performances in which we eavesdrop on donkeys speaking amongst themselves and to us (and audiences). Reclaiming the donkey from the indignity of centuries old master slave relationship in which the dominant image of the donkey has been stereotypically negative (stubborn, buffoon, jackass, stupid), Do Donkeys Act? elevates a denigrated and degraded beast to the role of lead actor and performance artist. To paraphrase Marina Abramovic, the donkey is present.

Where did you film?

We filmed at the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, England, Cork, Ireland, Guelph, Canada, and upstate New York.

What are your major messages? 

Do Donkeys Act? subtly subverts the notion of the “dumb beast” as it captures donkeys communicating emotionally with each other in the midst of healing from human cruelty and neglect. It’s about being with these beautiful creatures and experiencing their sentience.

Who is your intended audience?

Donkey and animal lovers, poetry readers, anthropologists, ethnographers, sociologists, cinema lovers, and Willem Dafoe fans.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?

We came up with the idea for poetic narration later in the project production. But we also felt tied to a non-narrated version (no human voice). We decided to have two versions: Do Donkeys Act? which is narrated by Willem Dafoe and Sanctuary which is un-narrated (or rather, “narrated by donkeys”). Having two versions has been an interesting filmic exercise as some people connect with one more than the other.  

What are you current and future projects?

We are working to find distribution homes for Do Donkeys Act? and Sanctuary while finishing up the editing on our next project set in a very small village in Galicia, Spain. The film focuses its lens on the last remaining resident and the town's ghost.

Thank you for this fascinating interview David. I hope it enjoys global success. Donkeys and all other nonhuman animals need all the help they can get, and Do Donkeys Act? should go a long way toward dispelling myths about these deeply caring sentient beings. 

1A film by: David Redmon & Ashley Sabin Narrated by: Willem Dafoe Produced by: Deborah & Dale Smith Colorist/Title Design: Daniel Stuyck Sound Designers/re-recording mixers: Tom Hammond, Wayne Bell, Miles Foster-Greenwood Foley Artist: Susan Fitz-Simon Still Photography: Meghan Brosnan Graphic Designer: Jesse Bussey Additional Sound Recording: Douglas Moffat Story Consultant: Marcy Garriott Post Production Sound Services: Soundcrafter Austin, TX Supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and ConservationRewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.

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