The Current

Documentary reveals donkeys as humble, dignified beasts, despite abuse

A new documentary gives the donkey its due as the film explores sanctuaries around the world for the often abused animals.
The documentary Do Donkeys Act shows a world inside donkey sanctuaries from the animal’s point of view. (David Redmon, Ashley Sabin, UK)

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You may not be a donkey lover or even think twice about them, but a new documentary gets up close and personal to give the humble beast its due.

Do Donkeys Act narrated by Willem Dafoe — who happens to have a soft spot for the often under-appreciated animals —introduces us to donkeys recovering from abuse and neglect in sanctuaries across the U.K, Ireland, Canada, and the U.S. 

The idea to pay homage to donkeys came about after filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon were finishing up an intense production in Russia.
The documentary Do Donkeys Act aims to restore dignity to the disparaged animal. (David Redmon, Ashley Sabin, U.K.)

"We frankly just didn't want to put our camera on human beings. We wanted animals," Sabin tells The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

She explains that after hearing the incredible sounds of the donkeys online, they both knew they had to make this film.

To delve into the true world the donkey lives in, viewers are asked to "step into their shade" — a quote by David Abram's, Becoming Animal, to listen closely.

"Each donkey in the movie ... communicate something different to the audience," Redmon says.

"What we're trying to understand is the exterior — expressively of the animals both through their body language, through an audience encounter with them."

That understanding doesn't always include the belting of loud, long trombone-sounding notes echoing through the fields; sometimes it includes silence.

Often, the camera captures stretched-out scenes of donkeys in the field, testing patience but also providing an experience that Redmon says is a true way to be immersed into the experiences of the animal.

Donkeys completely mask their previous human relationships until they feel threatened, Sabin explains. So in a space of a sanctuary, she says they are "trained to really trust humans again, depending on their degree of abuse."

Filmmaker Ashley Sabin sees a soulfulness in donkeys when they interact with humans. (David Redmon, Ashley Sabin, UK)

There's no way of knowing their backstory, what they experienced before they arrived at what Sabin calls a "sort of idyllic retirement home."

But she says watching the donkeys interact, and trust humans so generously was incredibly moving.

"There's a soulfulness to how they watched and looked at us and looked at each other and engaged with all the different humans — their caretakers," Sabin tells Chattopadhyay.

Redmon says the documentary shines a light on how there is another way for humans to exist with the noble and dignified animal that was bred to serve humans, 

"There are other ways of relating to each other, and it doesn't have to be on abuse or negligence or exploitation, although I think all of those three characteristics are embedded in humanity."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.