What is it about donkeys?

By Dario Llinares

Gorrión, the star of Chico Pereria's Donkeyote (2017)

Gorrión, the star of Chico Pereria's Donkeyote (2017)

There is something enigmatic and appealing about donkeys. This axiom, asserted by Kathy Hubbard, director of Shetland Arts Screenplay Film Festival in Shetland in her introduction to festival hit Donkeyote (2017), was met with murmurs and nods of approval from a packed audience. But why should this be the case? Maybe it’s aesthetic: the floppy ears, the melancholy gait, the toothiness preceding that elemental bray. Or is it something more ineffable? Stoic reliability, unswerving companionship, a kind of existential absurdity, or are donkeys merely a symbol of life's long, hard precarious journey? In case you think I might be overdoing the hyperbole, such allusions are palpable in the form of Gorrión, the equine star of Chico Pereira’s poetic, poignant, amusing and, of course, quixotic film.

The human protagonist of Donkeyote, Manolo (the uncle of the director), is less an embodiment of the knight-errant and more a fusion of Cervantes’ eponymous hero and his ironic sage Sancho Panza. Living simply in southern Spain, Manolo personifies a history of romantic ambulation through nature in harmonious, even mystical accord, with his dog, Zafrana and beloved donkey. His tireless marching onwards is seemingly an existential drive but at 73 and with failing health, Manolo plans a final adventure following the Trail of Tears, an iconic passage forced upon the Native American Cherokee Nation, 2000 miles, East to West across America. But not without Gorrión. Reactions to this hare-brained scheme, incredulity from his daughter Paquita - “America? America? AMERICA? she exclaims in disbelief - and barely veiled derision from travel agents and other bureaucrats, point to a central theme: the boundaries imposed by the modern age.

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Shots of man and beast coming up against all forms of barriers permeate the film. The physical ones - wire fences, roads, train lines, rivers – are negotiated (or not) in various ways. One of the most comedic scenes stems from Gorrión’s reluctance to cross the water on to a ferry; Manolo’s vexed impatience turns to jovial resignation and then empathetic coaxing.  But perhaps the more telling obstacle is that of communication. The trials of learning English, shooting a video appeal for money for the trip, and the conspiratorial rejections of officials whose obstructive mind-set can in no way grasp the romance of this dream, imbue a tragi-comic tone. Manolo embraces the technologies of communication, he is no luddite, but the more channels he explores the further he seems from his ultimate goal. The encroachment of technological development is a recurrent visual metaphor that reflects how the natural freedom of the environment is compromised by modernity's striation of space. A simple trek with one's donkey thus becomes an Odyssian endeavour. 

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Pereira’s intellectually ironic style with neorealist echoes is evident in his debut film Pablo’s Winter (2012), but this latest project is layered with a personal undercurrent which, on the one hand, gives the film its depth, drama and humour, but on the other opens up questions about cinema as document. There is nominally an observational relationship between filmmaker and subject yet the dramatic situations and visual compositions have clear structure and arrangement for us to witness. So, in one sense the director remains at a distance; no voice-over or explicitly questioning interjection seeks explanation (only at one moment, when Manolo wakes up in genuine pain, is the observational illusion explicitly broken). Yet there is a subtle complicity between Pereira and his uncle that emerges though the film's formal approach. A glint of awareness in the eye of Manolo suggests he is very much in on the yarn.

Furthermore, the film is cut in such a way that reaction shots of Gorrión, along with his endearing antics, invite us to project an anthropomorphism. And close-ups using a wide-angle lens evoke a deep connection between man and animal. There could be an accusation that this is not documentary at all, but a kind of fictionalisation of authenticity. Realist rather than reality. Yet, to me, Donkeyote possesses a knowing sensibility which deliberately transcends the porous boundaries between fact and fiction. Pereira's work can therefore be aligned with the post-Oppenheimer tendency in documentary; filmmakers actively challenging the mechanics of documentary form and even puncturing the false dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity.

This is a film that can be easily taken as a low-key, heartwarming tail of an eccentric old adventurer's symbiotic relationship with his donkey. But a slightly deeper look offers meditations on the man's relationship to nature, the boundaries imposed by modernity, and even the essential nature of communication and companionship.       

Dario speaks to the producer of Donkeyote in Episode 51 of The Cinematologists Podcast.

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