The Donkey’s Eyes: Jerzy Skolimowski Discusses “EO”

The peripatetic Polish master discusses his bold and brave film, which dares to make a wayward donkey its hero.
Daniel Kasman

EO (2022).

It is not often that a film is made with radical sympathy. Too often, movies ignore the longing and pain of people, excluding their existence in form and feeling from storyworlds. And if such things are acknowledged, the movie will tend to make up for this rarity by overplaying misery and desperation. Jerzy Skolimowski's EO, a tremendously sad but also overwhelmingly beautiful picture, chooses the radical path. The film is devoted, in body and soul, style and spirit, to sympathizing with another creature, and one who suffers a great deal without exploiting either its pathos or the viewer’s emotional reserves. Skolimowski and his co-writer, producer, and wife Ewa, in the spirit of great compassion, tell the story not of a human creature, but of an animal; and better yet, a donkey.

Even with Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966) as a precedent, it’s an unexpected subject, but Skolimowski’s oeuvre is filled with films as adventurous as his career. The Polish master’s began as a contemporary of Roman Polanski, with whom he wrote Knife in the Water (1962) and his forthcoming movie The Palace, and after making several wonderfully zany and razor-sharp modernist features in his native country, Skolimowski become a peripatetic director, shooting in Belgium (Le départ, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud), the UK (Deep End, The Shout, and Moonlighting being highlights), the United States, and Poland again before eventually taking a seventeen-year hiatus, during which the director focused on his painting. When he returned to filmmaking, Skolimowski never let up the surprises: he made an experimental minimalist chase film, Essential Killing (2010), starring Vincent Gallo as an Afghan prisoner of war, and the Irish thriller 11 Minutes (2015), which told interconnected stories that all take place during the same precise, titular time frame.

Hardly through with his provocative storytelling ambitions, Skolimowski’s EO is an episodic narrative that weaves between love, satire, abuse, misery, hope, confusion, and horror, as it follows a donkey's journey from Poland to Italy. Its wayward experience is evoked through a capricious and exhilarant range of stylistic experimentation. The camera frequently embodies an omniscient, allegorical position, flying with liquid fluidity over a fable-like landscape or scuttling, groundlevel, along with a red-tinged nightmare of zoomorphic robots. But it also takes on its hero’s perspective, insomuch as a camera can approximate donkey point-of-view shots and donkey dreams. Such camera and editing habits come together to create a compelling strangeness that can only come from trying to sympathize so strongly with something other than oneself. The effort alone is tender and admirable, but that EO frequently pulls off its tightrope feat—making us see or feel out of our body and mind, approaching an animal's sensitivity for one fleeting moment, and easily earning our immediate alignment with the donkey instead of the humans around it—is how this picture goes beyond well-meaning and achieves the cinematic.

Over a video conversation, Skolimowski spoke with us about his love of animals, his discovery of his protagonist, and his secret to directing donkeys.  

NOTEBOOK: I was curious to know if you had pets growing up as a child.

JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: Not during the war—my early childhood was during the Second World War. But I had my first little dog when I was already in film school in my early 20s. I always had dogs and cats in my household.

NOTEBOOK: So you've always had a close relationship with animals?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Yes. I developed a very close relationship especially with my latest three dogs, which are all German Shepherds. That's the breed of dog that apparently is the easiest to communicate with and to develop a kind of bond between the animal and the human being.

NOTEBOOK: Had you always envisioned EO as being about a donkey, like in the Robert Bresson film Au hasard Balthazar, or was there ever a point you considered another animal protagonist?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Of course I did remember Bresson's movie, especially since it was connected with quite a special event, which was in 1966. This is when Au hasard Balthazar was made and the same year I made my second feature film, Walkover. I was an unknown young filmmaker from Poland, and suddenly I received a phone call from the editor of Cahiers du cinéma, the most influential film magazine in the world, asking me for the interview, which was a total surprise. Why me? What became apparent was that they made a list of the ten best films of the year. To my biggest surprise, my modest Walkover took second place. So obviously I asked, Who is number one? It was Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar. I hadn't seen the film at that time, so I went to see it. I admire the film. It's a great, great movie. But the biggest surprise to me is that at the very end of the film, I find that I have tears in my eyes, which never happened to me before or after. I said that in that very interview, so you have proof if you look at Cahiers du cinéma that it is true what I am saying—that I was crying at the end of Au hasard Balthazar. That was an enormous lesson, which I was taught by Robert Bresson: that the animal character can move the audience even stronger than the greatest performance by the human being.

When Ewa, who is my co-writer and co-producer and my wife, and I started to talk about the new project, which eventually became EO, we thought that we were so fed up with linear narration, because practically all films keep the same structure, telling the story from the beginning, the end, with the three-act structure. I think the audience—not only myself, but the general audience—could be quite bored with it. We were thinking, how do we get away from it? We already tried a little bit in 11 Minutes, [in] which we only partially succeeded, but at least we made the first step into that direction. Then we thought that perhaps if we tell the story with an animal as the main character, that could be a new kind of way of narrating the film. At least we will get rid of the solid chunk of the dialogue, which is the most boring part of the film!

We decided to look for an animal that could carry the length of the feature film. We eliminated immediately the obvious choice of cats and dogs because there were so many of those films that the audience probably wouldn't be ready to see another kitten drama. By chance, we came across a donkey in a very peculiar circumstance. We spent the winter in Sicily, escaping the harsh Polish weather. Because it was Christmastime, in the neighborhood village, as in every Christmas, the population of the little village organized something called in Italian Presepe di Natale, which is the living nativity manger. It was performed by hundreds of people, the whole population of the village: they keep some old costumes, and they perform the life of ancient times. There were many attractions and people were walking from one attraction to the other. At the very end of the tour was a quite large barn from which enormous noise was heard, a cacophony of animal sounds. When we entered it, we saw St. Joseph and St. Mary, holding the baby Jesus and surrounded by several dozens of different animals, starting with chickens and geese on the floor, and then the pigs and sheep and cows, and an enormous bull, all of them making incredible noises because of such an ensemble of sixty, seventy, or eighty animals all sounding their joy or anger. 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. And you know, looking very peacefully, very thoughtfully, with these enormous eyes, observing what's going on.

At that very moment, both Ewa and I understood that this is the animal, with his inquisitive look of the eye that was already making comments in a way, the melancholy in his eyes, a kind of withdrawnness, separating himself from the rest of it: This is the animal which can withstand the length of the feature film. We can look at it with interest, especially into his eyes. You know the famous experiment of the early Russian cinematographers Dziga Vertov and Kuleshov, who were cutting from the same human face to the details of something else—like a piece of bread, and then the same face expressed hunger; if it was cut to a pistol, immediately the same face, without changing any expression, would express the wish [to] kill, et cetera? Based on that fact, we knew that if we would use the donkey's point of view, the look of his eyes would make a comment on something more than just the film’s situation.

NOTEBOOK: If you're thinking of it like Kuleshov, where for example in EO you show a shot of the donkey looking and then a shot of horses running, the audience creates that connection and projects and interprets the information that they see on the donkey's face. In this way, you're creating that meaning through the edit. Were there circumstances where you felt like you needed to direct the animal in a scene to create meaning rather than through editing? How do you direct an animal that doesn't quite understand what you need for a given shot or scene?

SKOLIMOWSKI: You know, donkeys have the reputation of being stubborn and stupid. Stubborn, yes I do agree—we had cases when we couldn't really overcome its stubbornness. But not stupid at all! No, those are very intelligent animals and very sensitive. When I realized how sensitive they are, I used a simple trick. When the rest of the crew was busy organizing the new scene, or eating lunch or having a break or whatever, I spent all my free time with that animal. And I was whispering to his ears the most tender words, which I practice with my dogs. Of course, he didn't understand the words, but he was getting the tone of voice. When you use those delicate sounds, the animal starts to understand that my intention towards him or her is positive, and we start to create a real bond. So eventually when we were looking at each other's eyes, which happened quite frequently—looking at a donkey's eyes is an experience, they are enormous, proportionally they're much larger than with any other animal—so by looking at each other's eyes, we create a kind of bond, which I, for my private use, started calling "coexistence." We felt like we—two of us—are coexisting somehow as a separate entity against the whole other world. 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; I was assisting it through all the rehearsals and all the shots, and when he felt that I was next to him, he knew that he's absolutely safe. When I made delicate directions like, let's go this way, of course I had the biggest weapon in my hand: The carrot. Most of the time I achieved what I wanted quite easily and quickly.

NOTEBOOK: You sometimes used the camera to be the donkey's point of view in the film. When did you choose to use that specific perspective, for the camera itself to become the donkey's vision?

SKOLIMOWSKI: I use the point of view of the donkey many times. It was basically the figure of the editing which created a pattern. When I had a scene arranged, I showed the master shot showing everything: the positions of the actors, the props, the action, and the position of the donkey, when it's present there. Then of course I cover it with the individual shots of the participants in the scene. Then I shot the donkey himself; and then the close shot of the eyes. And the next shot was covering this thing that I showed in the master shot, but using it as a point of view of the donkey. Already there on the set when I watched it on the monitor, I noticed a significant difference: that the same thing, the same object, the same human faces, the same actions looks slightly different when shot objectively and when shot as a donkey's point of view. It's a mystery of cinema. I can't even explain what is the difference, but it looks slightly different, like some new element was added into it, some new value. So I use that figure of editing quite frequently—there's a general pattern of the story, told by the donkey's eyes.

NOTEBOOK: To extend that, you do something very bold in the film, which is to give a donkey dreams of—or perhaps flashbacks to—a woman who loves him. Where did this idea come from, that a donkey can have an imagination, a figurative mental space?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Having my dogs and observing them for years, I knew that they have dreams. So many times I observe my dog running while sleeping, you know, he moves his [paws], he barks during sleep, so it must be doing something, having some images he is referring or responding with, reacting to. I was absolutely sure that that must be the same case with the donkey. They must have some flashes of images or something. I didn't hesitate to use those dreams or memory flashes. I truly believed that could really happen.


NOTEBOOK: You spoke earlier about your and Ewa's, let's say, experimental approach to narrative and script writing. I would extend that description to the visual approach to the film, as well. It's a movie that, episode by episode and even inside the episodes, is always conceiving of an unexpected or even radical approach to visualizing things, and I'm curious to know how you worked with your cinematographer Michał Dymek to come up with these various ideas. The film feels extremely liberated in what the camera can do.

SKOLIMOWSKI: I must say that yes, Dymek was a very, very creative collaborator. Whenever he approached me with his line, Listen, I have a crazy idea, I immediately listened to him, and I pushed him even further in that direction. I said, No, make it even crazier, make it bizarre, make it extravagant. You know, normally, DOPs [directors of photography] don't like this approach, because they don't want to be accused of technical mistakes. When you experiment and you don't really know for sure what the result will be, it's very easy to make mistakes. It's only a matter of the trust between the DOP and the director that the director wouldn't stupidly use the technical mistake, whose blame would be on the shoulders of the DOP, never on the director. So I was fair towards Dymek and even pushed him to do some absolutely extravagant shots, eliminate those which were not perfect, and I had enough of the bizarre stuff, which really served very well the film.

NOTEBOOK: Did some of these extravagant visuals originate in the script, or were they mostly found, so to speak, on the set, where you conceived of the visual approach?

SKOLIMOWSKI: A lot of it was written in the script. I can give you an example, if you remember this owl sitting on the branch, high above looking down at the donkey crossing the stream. This was written exactly as it was shot. But of course, in many instances, there were some improvised shots. That was the case when I was really pushing Dymek into going for total extremes and he did a wonderful job on the film, obviously.

NOTEBOOK: Through allegorical narrative like this, the story could be very abstracted from reality. But this is also a film that feels it is really on town streets in Poland, at a soccer match, the opening dedication ceremony of the stable—it's a film that is not totally removed from reality, even if at the end, with Isabelle Huppert, it starts to step back from what the real world is. Do you see this movie as having a perspective on what's happening right now in Poland? Or do you feel like it's a more distant and symbolic approach to storytelling?

SKOLIMOWSKI: I believe both. Some of it, like you mentioned, the opening of the new object, it's a little satire on the empty speech of the politicians, which they blah, blah, blah, all the time, the same thing. That was really a kind of satirical touch. But, of course, there are some other scenes which are highly metaphorical and are far from being objective. Please keep in mind that the story has a little aspect of the kind of biblical story. It's metaphorical, full of allusions to many aspects of life. It is difficult to put them into words. You know, I was a poet as a young man, so I have this natural training of my imagination towards metaphors and towards meanings which sometimes can escape the proper words.

NOTEBOOK: I don't want to compare your film to Bresson's because they're quite different things. But I did want to follow up on what you said about a biblical story. Bresson's film tends to see the donkey figure as related to Christ, which gives the film a very deeply Christian narrative element. As you imply, that's also present in your film, and I wanted to know how much you see this story as a specifically Christian story.

SKOLIMOWSKI: I wouldn't put much emphasis on this. And please do remember that the donkey in Bresson's film is one of a couple of dozens of characters, and it's not his story. He got several episodes, but it's not the story of the donkey, while my film is totally dedicated to that one singular animal character. That creates a big difference. But this religious aspect, I didn't put much emphasis on it at all.

NOTEBOOK: You are already an animal person, as you've said, but did this experience on the set, working with these donkeys day in and day out, change your approach to animals or the way you see animals now?

SKOLIMOWSKI: I was always very sensitive to animals. One change that I definitely observe in myself and also in Ewa is that we drastically cut the consumption of meat. We're not vegans or vegetarians, but we're advancing in that way quite well. I also observed that nearly half of my crew during the shooting of the film stopped eating meat. I believe that one of the results of watching EO is that at least part of the audience would follow this, and maybe they would think twice if they need to eat that much meat as they usually do.

NOTEBOOK: These last three films of yours I find so radical in their approach. Essential Killing's stripped-down minimalism; 11 Minutes's fragmentation and complications with time; and, as we've talked about, EO's unconventional approach to narrative, to its protagonist, to its visuals. What would you like to do next? What's the next step in this direction of cinema you're taking?

SKOLIMOWSKI: I definitely would not step back from what I am doing. I hope that I would be able to find another step ahead into looking for some new forms of expression. Right now, I don't have any idea about a new film; I'm still thinking about donkeys, I'm still shooting this film. The film affected me, my heart and my mind. It is really the result of making a film with a great belief in its general message, and the fact that I love nature and the animals.

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