EO: A Bold and Original Experiment in Empathy

15/02/2023

Benjamin Gibbs takes us into the mind of a donkey with his review of this Oscar nominated Polish film

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Image by Janus Films

By Benjamin Gibbs

“Don’t you see this animal suffers?”

This question, shouted by an animal rights protestor, becomes one of the central debates that echo throughout Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film EO (2022). The film asks pressing questions about our inability to empathise with the other creatures with whom we share this planet, and draws out the catastrophic consequences of this dynamic. Watching this film is a truly unique and strangely compelling experience, as the viewer is made to imagine what it would actually be like to see the world through the eyes of a donkey - eponymously named EO.

EO has been met with widespread acclaim, winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. This is quite impressive given the fact that the film’s main character never speaks a word and does not offer much in terms of psychological complexity. Yet the film has a mesmerising, almost hypnotic quality to it, gradually forcing you to identify with its asinine protagonist.

The narrative is very straightforward: it simply follows a donkey’s journey from Poland to Italy, though summarising in this way implies a more clearly driven and linear narrative than is actually the case. It begins with the titular character being taken away from the circus, going on to depict its subsequent journey in a fragmentary manner, mostly omitting the connections between them. The story’s development is about as logical as it might appear to a donkey experiencing it.

This is the only film that I have ever seen which takes a story about an animal seriously on its own terms. The animal is not a metaphor or an allegory, it is not anthropomorphised in order to reflect certain human characteristics back to us. Instead, the film attempts to truly represent the world as it might be experienced by this donkey. This unusual approach does raise some complicated aesthetic questions. What would it mean for a story told from the perspective of a donkey to have a beginning, middle and an end? To what extent is it possible or even desirable to transpose a cinematic language, which has been developed over the course of the last century, specifically to reflect human experience, onto that of an animal?

Throughout, there is frequent use of the shot-reverse shot, whereby the impression is created that there is a logical and emotional relationship between EO’s act of witnessing and that which is being witnessed. One such example comes early in the film, where the titular donkey EO is being transported in a trailer and is looking out of the window at a small herd of horses freely running across the field. The implication, based on our traditional understanding of film grammar, is that EO is yearning for the freedom that these horses get to enjoy. But does it make sense to make this assumption? On what basis can we believe to understand the emotional desires of a donkey?

But the foundation of the film is built upon this assumption, Skolimowski takes for granted our ability to project human emotions onto a farm animal, understanding its inner life and ultimately empathising with its experience. You start to look with bewilderment and estrangement at the human characters, at the absurdity and the coldness of their behaviour. You too start to feel and understand the longing with which this donkey remembers its former trainer at the zoo. The film starts to make you think that you can actually comprehend the donkey’s perspective. In a sense, this is utterly ridiculous. Mere cinematic trickery. But this is kind of the point. It represents a radical experiment in empathy, an attempt to imagine the perspective of a creature we could not possibly understand.

Skolimowski continually makes sure to firmly place this critique of humanity’s lack of empathy in the broader context of overwhelming environmental destruction. There is a distinct lack of enthusiasm about supposedly protectionist environmental measures, such as the ban on the use of animals in circus performances. Skolimowski clearly brings out the hypocritical irony of this policy, as, for EO, it merely replaces one form of bondage with another. This attitude towards what is presented as a merely superficial environmental protectionism finds its most heightened expression in a kind of nightmarish montage in the middle of the film. We are confronted with a smoke-filled, barren and almost hellish landscape over which looms a set of enormous wind turbines. The sequence is coloured in monochrome red and concludes with a bird being struck down by one of the turbines, its corpse landing in a puddle right in front of the donkey. Skolimowski presents an almost apocalyptic vision of the fatal consequences of humanity endlessly imposing itself upon the natural world.

The main flaws of the film make themselves felt in the scenes of human interaction, but fortunately there are relatively few of them. There is some unconvincing acting and dialogue in these scenes, but their brevity ultimately makes them tolerable. Ultimately it is the strange and fascinating strength of its main character which sustains the interest throughout the film. The tension between our empathy and distance to this animal remains incredibly compelling. The film is clearly not made for everyone. Some people might not have the patience to engage with a cinematic construct as clearly outlandish and strange as this one. But I would urge anyone who is interested to watch EO in the cinema while that is still possible. It does require one’s full attention, but it rewards it with the full emotional immersion and uniquely intense experience which only cinema can provide.