Did you ever have existential questions about donkeys? No? Well, move on.

Or not. The truth is, you haven’t seen anything like Do Donkeys Act? It’s a documentary about donkeys, made reputedly by humans (Ashley Sabin and David Redmon), for the enjoyment of – donkeys? There are no talking head interviews in the film, very little input from people, period. There are, however, extended shots of donkeys just “being.” Filmed on a few different donkey sanctuaries where tired and abused donkeys live out their last years, there are no donkey facts or never-before-seen type footage. What the film does offer is plenty of space to contemplate the life and death of these beasts of burden.

How do donkeys cry? Do they tremble inside? Do they dream? These are the types of insights and reflexive cues provided by poetic narration provided by Willem Dafoe. We might spend several minutes just gazing upon a bunch of donkeys eating communally from a trough. We may consider the different utterances we hear and attempt to interpret each one. The donkeys are communicating – are you listening?

I started to wonder, listening to the humble donkeys honk and hee-haw, if they were perhaps translating the poetry we were hearing from Dafoe. But then, in a mind-bender, I wondered: is it maybe we who are translating their poetry? Mind blown.

Although it took me a while to get into its unique rhythm, Do Donkeys Act? has an embracing kind of empathy that came to be quite moving. It’s strange to think that I spent 72 minutes thinking about donkeys, which is about 72 minutes more than I’ve ever given them before, but there’s a kind of grace in that. The film is a triumph for the filmmakers, and a source of dignity for its brave subjects.

This review was originally published as part of our Hot Docs 2017 coverage. The film opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, September 29th

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