I like donkeys. I don’t know if I had an opinion about donkeys before seeing DO DONKEYS ACT?, but I can tell you that I thought they were the ones who were half horse and half mule, so that tells you how much I knew about donkeys. Needless to say, the scene of a donkey giving birth halfway through DO DONKEYS ACT? came as quite a shock.
Filmed over five years at four separate donkey sanctuaries, DO DONKEYS ACT? isn’t so much an educational film about how donkeys are rehabilitated from human cruelty so much as it is a meditation on emotion and expression. Narrated quite fittingly by Willem Dafoe, it shows us a number of scenes involving donkeys meeting, parting, coming into this world, and going to the dentist.
It makes sense that a movie about donkey communication would be narrated by Willem Dafoe. Listening to the bray of dozens of donkeys at once is both abrasive and oddly soothing. The same can be said of listening to Willem Dafoe waxing poetic about consciousness and communication. Donkeys bray. Willem Dafoe interprets. And occasionally drops hints about what the audience must be thinking as well.
The only problem with this film is that I can’t imagine much of an audience for it. I know that I would recommend it to anyone who’s willing to take a short walk across the barrier between our minds and those of the donkeys sheltered by rehabilitators. But even as I was watching it, I knew I’d have a hard time selling it to my friends.
I also felt a great sympathy for creatures I’d seldom thought about. A donkey with overgrown hooves, in need of surgery. A donkey stubbornly being pulled on its lead toward the oral care building. A feral donkey being introduced to a pen of rehabilitated donkeys, being rejected for being too loud, abrasive, and confrontational.
Maybe I read a bit more of myself into that last one than I should have.
Do donkeys act? I don’t know. It depends on how you define acting. And depending on the actor, the answer is either “how dare you” or “of course they can! some of my best teachers were donkeys”. But if we’re asking if donkeys emote? If donkeys communicate grief? Longing? Frustration? Relief? Happiness? Love? Of course they do.
Is that acting?
For what it’s worth, the movie itself is almost blissfully unconcerned with an answer. Its concern is the misunderstood beasts of burden at its core, their day to day tribulations. Asking us if donkeys think they’re people or if people might be more like donkeys.
Do donkeys act? Yeah, as much as anything else on earth does or can. THREE STARS