“Do Donkeys Act?”Ashley Sabin
’s documentaries have screened internationally in festivals and on television worldwide. Her vast body of work includes four recent “animal ethnography” films based in the world of donkeys.
“Do Donkeys Act?” will premiere at the 2017 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 27. The film is co-directed by David Redmon
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
As: “Do Donkeys Act?” is an ethno-poetic animal fiction that takes that its playfully self-reflexive cues from documentarians Jean Rouch
and Chris Marker
Encouraging us to respect a major language barrier we might not otherwise consider — the mystery and intrigue of donkey utterances — “Do Donkeys Act?” invites us to “step into their shade and listen closely” as we attune to a series of dramatic performances in which we eavesdrop on donkeys speaking amongst themselves.
By reclaiming the donkey from the indignity of a centuries-old, master-slave relationship — in which the dominant image of the donkey has been negative and related to stubbornness, jackassery, etc. — “Do Donkeys Act?” elevates a denigrated and degraded beast to the role of lead actor and performance artist. To paraphrase performance artist Marina
Abramović, the donkey is present.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
As: We focused our lens and sound recorder on donkeys because of their bray. Late one night
, we listened to a YouTube video of a donkey braying, and at that point we knew we had to make a film. The sound is musical and enchanting. I was pregnant with our first child, so it seemed like the kind of film on which we could embark.
The movie is about the phenomenology of being with the expressive donkeys. What surprised us, though, is how intuitive and empathic they are.
Turns out, we didn’t premiere the film until we had our second child! Sometimes, these documentaries take a while to simmer.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
As: “Do Donkeys Act?” subtly subverts the notion of the “dumb beast.” It captures donkeys communicating emotionally with each other in the midst of healing from human cruelty and neglect.
It’s really about being present with these beautiful creatures and experiencing their sentience.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
As: We have two wonderful producers, Deborah Smith and Dale Smith, who put in the first funds. They believe in us and the work we do, which is such a gift. Then my co-director, David Redmon
, secured a Leverhulme Institute Grant in the UK, which allowed him to finish his book, publish articles on donkeys, and complete the movie. The rest was self-financed.
We’ve always worked in a way whereby we produce work, distribute it, and then use the funds from distribution to make the next piece. This means we had to work at a fast rate. This has since changed, as we have two children. We’re currently working on a new model.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Hot Docs?
As: We used to live in Montreal, and, in fact, we filmed at a donkey sanctuary near Toronto in Guelph, Canada.
It is a real pleasure to return and share “Do Donkeys Act?” with a Canadian audience that has a passion for documentary.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
As: Best advice: Cut on motion. This is an interesting way of thinking about editing. People, objects, landscapes, and donkeys are constantly in flux.
Worst advice: Use professional lighting. I don’t think that person understood our filmmaking style at all.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
As: I feel fortunate to have found a wonderful partner. We have similar sensibilities. We also disagree enough to allow the filmmaking process to be challenging and interesting.
Editing is a lonely process, so if you can find good collaborators, it can help the film and the process.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
As: It’s a tie between Kelly Reichardt
’s “Old Joy
” and Agnes Varda
’s “The Gleaners and I.” Both have a beautiful simplicity to their narrative. They are playful, and I can feel the hands of the creator. The maker feels resourceful and creative.
They aren’t perfect films, but something about their imperfections also attracts me.
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
As: I think it’s important to encourage women filmmakers, as well as other daring makers and new voices.
After having two children, a new issue has come to my attention: the lack of childcare at film festivals. How can a family of filmmakers fully participate without some childcare help? I think if this issue changes the division of labor between both women and men everyone would benefit greatly.
Hot Docs 2017 Women
Directors: Meet Ashley Sabin
— “Do Donkeys Act?” was originally published in Women
and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.