Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
From the opening scene of EO, a film by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski which was a nominee for Best International Feature in the 2022 Academy Awards, the world is shown to contain both tenderness and uncertainty. Watching EO recently during its run in the European Film Festival, I felt the film asking: how do we navigate that duality? And answering: through finding moments of community, wherever they may be found.
The film’s titular character, EO, is a former circus donkey. Cut loose from his role, he is sent to work elsewhere: embarking on a listless, feverish odyssey through the European countryside, facing gentleness and cruelty in various forms during encounters with humans and the non-human world. But first, the opening scene: in strobe-lit cutaways, we see EO and his handler, Kasandra, performing together in the circus. Their kinship is clear. Despite the overall hardship of circus life on animals, Kasandra is a friend to the donkey, speaking to him and treating him largely as an equal. It’s an intimate portrayal of a friendship between two different creatures that is symbiotic rather than subservient, even (or especially) as this bond exists within the larger human-centric, problematic environment of the circus. It’s a touching reminder that community and kinship can be cultivated in unexpected places - including across species - against all odds.
It’s a strange film: meandering, poetic, verging on magical realism at times. We see the world through the imagined perspective of the donkey. And the world we see is vast and naturally beautiful and terrible and nonsensical and occasionally slapstick. Events happen and resolve themselves in ways that are sometimes serendipitous and sometimes violent. I’m interested to learn that the film is a reinterpretation of French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar (Balthazar at Random), which also follows the life of an oft-mistreated donkey. But where Bresson’s filmmaking style feels minimalist, even austere at times, EO takes a more maximalist approach. It is loaded with dreamlike sequences and moments of surrealism. The score, veering between operatic strings and brash techno, gives even mundane moments a frisson of intensity and grandeur. Notably, as director Skolimowski tells MUBI, the process of making the film involved a great deal of relationship-building between himself and the donkey playing the titular role - cultivating trust and community with his collaborator: “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.
The film’s ending - without spoiling it - somewhat circles back to its beginning, resisting neat closure. As a viewer, I’m left with open questions. It feels equally possible that EO’s journey has been valuable and beautiful - or that it has ultimately been pointless. As Chuck Bowen writes in Slant Magazine: “EO is driven by the nagging ambiguity of our relationships with animals. Do they love us or are they weathering our presence out of shrewdness or indifference? Both interpretations sound egocentric—a marginalising of our mysterious relationships with animals—as we’re barely able to empathise with each other, much less members of another species. Like Balthazar, EO can mean anything or nothing; each can stand in for transcendence, cosmic indifference, or both or neither.”
Watching, I felt struck by the film’s awareness of the fragile, necessary ties that bind us to our nonhuman kin on Earth. And so it’s here that I come back to our current theme, community. I’m reminded of a line from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass that I think of often. “Each person, human or no,” she writes, “is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them.” It’s precisely this ethos - presented with compassion but not sentimentality - that EO offers.
Confluences: On 'EO'