By Liam Lacey
By chance, there were two really good documentaries about donkeys in this year’s Hot Docs 2017, First, there’s Do Donkeys Act?, which is not a film about performing animals, but filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's playful enquiry into donkey consciousness. Shot in donkey sanctuaries on three continents, the film is narrated by Willem Dafoe, who, you might recall, played Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a figure closely associated with donkeys.
The other film is Donkeyote, an account of a modern Don Quixote, a 73-year-old Spaniard, Manolo, and his mission to go to the United States, and walk the Trail of Tears, the 1830s forced march of the Cherokee natives from their ancestral homes. His donkey, Gorrión (Sparrow) is cast in the Sancho Panza role, as the more down-to-earth, skeptical sidekick, putting a reality check on Manolo’s impossible dream. Donkeys are often the dry, deflating literary sidekicks: Think of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh or Donkey in the Shrek movies.
One more example that donkeys are slowly and stubbornly trending might be Andy Merrifeld’s 2010 book, The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquillity in a Chaotic World, the author’s account of recovering his soul one summer while ambling through the vales and bracken of southern France with a Gribouille. Think of it as Eat, Bray, Love. Though it takes a very different angle, Do Donkey’s Act? was inspired by the filmmakers’ reading of Merriman’s book.
I propose expanding the definition of this fledging genre of Donkumentaries (credit to my daughter, Kate) to include similar non-fiction films that explore the cultural history of our relationship to animals in a thoughtful, poetic but entertaining way. These are documentaries that are patient and humble, technologically anachronistic, and drawn toward subjects that seem superficially ridiculous.
In this year’s Hot Docs’ lineup, for example, there’s the Finnish documentary, Hobby-Horse: Revolution, about adolescent girls who have developed equine competitions riding cloth and wood horses. Or, the New Zealand documentary, Pecking Order, about poultry pageantry. We could extend it to the mock-donkumentary, films of Christopher Guest, perhaps especially Best in Show, which explores the neurotic pretensions of humans in their relationship to their pets.
Donkeys, domesticated for millennia, are emblematic of our conflicted relationship with animals, in both revering and exploiting them. One long tradition is the idea that donkeys are ugly, stubborn and noisy, deserving of the abuse that humans inflict on them. For a person to become like a donkey is the ultimate debasement.
Think of the Greek myth of King Midas, who is given donkey ears when he makes the mistake of betting against Apollo in a music competition. Shakespeare used a similar idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Oberon, the King of the fairies, gets revenge on his wife by having her fall in love with a man turned into an ass. In the Italian fairy-tale, Pinnochio, the thoughtless boys on Pleasure Island are turned into braying jackasses.
There’s an opposing tradition, going back to the Bible, that donkeys are the symbol of humility and service, the animal that carried Mary to Bethlehem and Christ in his triumphal entrance toJerusalem. Often, the donkey is associated directly with the cruelty and abuse Christ suffered. The dark cross-stripes on most donkeys’ backs has been tied since medieval times to the Cross.
The Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, famous for his Father Brown, stories wrote a poem about donkey’s shame and pride, which I recall being forced to memorize in elementary school. It begins “When fishes flew and forests walked/ And figs grew upon thorn/Some moment when the moon was blood/ Then surely I was born.”
After continuing his monologue about his bad reputation, his “sickening cry” and “ears like errant wings’, the donkey narrator ends by scorning his human mockers:
“Fools! For I also had my hour;/ One far fierce hour and sweet/There was a shout about my ears,/And palms before my feet.”
Donkeys could be the embodiment of the holy fool. In the words of Thomas Aquinas: "One who is strengthened by God professes himself to be an utter fool by human standards, because he despises the wisdom men strive for.”
You can see this idea at work in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot when the guileless hero, Prince Muishkin, tells a story about arriving in Switzerland in a melancholy mood, which was suddenly lifted when he heard a donkey bray.
French director Robert Bresson was inspired by that brief passage to make the most famous of all donkey movies, 1966’s Au Hasard Baltazar (Balthazar, at random), ranked as one of the great spiritual movies. The film follows the parallel stories of the farm girl, Marie, and her beloved donkey Balthazar over many years, as they face parallel experiences of senseless cruelty.. Bresson said he believed donkeys to be “the most important, the most sensitive, the most intelligent, the most thoughtful, the most suffering of animals.”
I would be remiss in not bringing this rumination to its end and by clearing up a confusion about our hostility toward asses. In contemporary English, we tend to confuse the homonyms, “ass”, meaning “backside” and the now old-fashioned word for “donkey”. When I call someone an “ass”, I’m not thinking of furry long-eared quadrupeds in a field but picking a slightly less crude way of saying asshole.
In fact, he words are distinct. “Ass,” for rear end, is an American dialectical variant of the British “arse”, similar to the transition from horse to “hoss”, and it really only caught on since about 1930. I’m reminded of another poem I memorized in my childhood, which, I hope, pins the tail on the subject:
“There was a young man in Madras/ had a truly magnificent ass/ Not rounded and pink,/As you probably think/ But grey with long ears, and chewed grass.”
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather.