By Stephanie Bunbury

Donkeys, says Jerzy Skolimowski, have very large eyes in proportion to their heads.

“The donkey’s eyes are very particular and very specific,” the film director says. He first noticed this when spending a winter in a Sicilian village where Christmas was celebrated with a fair including a Presepe di Natale, or living nativity scene. A large barn at the end of the village was filled with animal noises.

“When we entered it, we saw St Joseph and St Mary holding the baby Jesus and surrounded by several dozen different animals, starting with chickens and geese on the floor, and then the pigs and sheep and cows and an enormous bull, all sounding their joy or anger.

Jerzy Skolimowski on the set of EO with one of his furry actors.Credit:Michał Englert/Sideshow and Janus Films

“But I noticed that at the very end corner, separated from everybody else, there was standing a donkey. Lone, motionless, soundless, observing what was going on with his ears up.”

Skolimowski and his wife and artistic collaborator, Ewa Piaskowska, had been mulling over ways to make a film that circumvented the conventions they found boring: linear narrative, a three-act structure, dialogue, and hit on the idea of making a film with an animal as the main character.

What animal they couldn’t decide, having agreed the world was probably bored by dogs and cats. In that stable, however, they found their hero.

“This is the animal that can withstand the length of the feature film,” Skolimowski remembers saying. It had to be a donkey.

Skolimowski, 84, is one of the last standing of the brilliant cinema innovators who worked behind the Iron Curtain in the ’60s and ’70s, eventually emerging to make films all over the world. Skolimowski notably made some ground-breaking films in the United Kingdom – Deep End (1970) The Shout (1978) and Moonlighting (1982) – before taking a sabbatical in 1991 to return to painting.

That planned short break lasted 17 years. EO is the third film he has made since he returned to film and, much to his own surprise, it is an arthouse hit. Last year, it won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Oscar.

“I love the film myself, so I was expecting at least a part of the world would join me in that feeling,” says Skolimowski with a twinkle, “but I was surprised by the enthusiastic reaction of the American media.” Not to mention the fan frenzy.

EO is first seen working in a circus, beloved by his handler who sneaks into his horsebox at night to snuggle and whisper to him. When the local authorities, under pressure from well-meaning animal rights activists, ban circus animals, a newly homeless and loveless EO escapes the knackers’ yard by setting out on the road.

From Poland to Italy he trots, encountering owls, wolves, caged foxes and humans who are sometimes kind but largely indifferent to other species, including Isabelle Huppert as a deranged Italian countess.

There is a clear reference to Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966), but Robert Bresson’s film revolves around the human characters who come into the donkey Balthazar’s orbit. This film is all donkey. Six donkeys, in fact, all playing EO.

“In all of my films, there are animals present. Usually I have a little part for my dog. Even in EO, our German Shepherd plays a dog in a parking lot,” Skolimowski says. “It is very obvious that EO is made out of love for nature and for animals, but I think that was always present in my films.”

Much of it is shot from EO’s point of view, cutting from the deep pools of his eyes to the scene before him. Even if we had seen it already in a master shot, says Skolimowski, “when the same situation is seen through his eyes, although nothing has changed somehow, for mysterious reasons, it looks slightly different.”

EO’s story begins with him working in a circus.Credit:Aneta Gębska

Call it Donkeyvision. We even see his dreams and longings, flashing past us as if they were our own dreams but in red, in eruptive shots.

The young cinematographer, Michel Dymek, was full of crazy ideas, Skolimowski says. “I immediately listened to him and I pushed him even further in that direction. ‘No, make it even crazier. Make it bizarre. Make it extravagant’.”

At the same time, EO is never shown to be anything other than an animal; we are invited to empathise with another species, not the humanised furballs – “people in cutesy, bowdlerised animal drag”, to quote the New York Times critic – of so many animated children’s films.

In real life, the donkey actors often exhibited the intransigence for which their kind is known. Skolimowski found that the best way to handle this was to spend as much time with them as he could, eating lunch with his donkeys, murmuring tenderly in their long ears.

“We create a kind of bond, which I, for my private use, started calling ‘coexistence’, he told Mubi Notebook magazine. “We felt like it’s only two of us here, and the rest of the world is somewhere else. That really gave this animal such a confidence in me.”

He also carried carrots. Whatever your relationship, real donkeys love carrots. There were, of course, absolutely no sticks.

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