What it is like to be mistreated as an object, without having the capacity to assume the position of subject

This remarkable film by Jerzy Skolimowski tells the story of the donkey EO (think ‘Eeyore’) whose harrowing journey across Europe begins when the circus act he is part of in small town Poland is closed down. He’s parted from the performer Magda who is devoted to him, repeatedly putting herself in the way of those who would harm him. Flashbacks to their act recur throughout the film like fever dreams, hallucinogenic intimations of a warmth and safety now foreclosed as EO find himself moved across Poland and beyond. His role oscillates between a neutral observer whose alien status cut through the thickets of language and a lost child driven by memories of home while on a nightmarish journey which has spiralled out of control.

Ironically it is a drunken Magda whose late night visit to EO’s donkey sanctuary impels him to try and follow her in the closest thing the film depicts to purposive agency, only for EO to stumble blindly into hell over the course of a night. This was the one point in the film where he was unambiguously protected, but his impulse to return to a fantasy of safety destroyed the reality of the safety he enjoyed. He encounters a parade of occasionally kind, often cruel and always wounded people along the way. I read the film as being about the desire to return home in a dark world over which we can exercise little control, with EO’s inchoate impulse to return to a barely remembered safety leading him through a (beautifully aestheticised) series of contingencies before he meets his eventual demise. Not only can we not return home but we can too easily exhaust the fleeting time we have alive attempting to do so.

Much as EO oscillates between observers and lost child, Skolimowski flips between depicting his sensory experience (sensorily rich yet undifferentiated, overpowering yet muffled) and external reactions with intense close ups on his eyes. This reminded me of the documentary Cow (below) which I saw last year. There’s a sentience we instinctively recognise in these eyes, yet an alien character which problematises our impulse to anthropomorphise. But what both films share is the capacity to convey something of what it is like to be mistreated as an object, without having the capacity to assume the position of subject if only the mistreatment would stop.

They challenge us to disentangle the anthropomorphic from the moral in order that we might recognise the dignity of sentient life on its own terms. This makes me second guess the reading with which I started this post but I wonder if this is rather the point; the spontaneity yet reticence of this reaction opens up a space in which we can move beyond ourselves. As Montaigne once reflected: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”. To assume the point of view of the animal Other can be a way through the anthropomorphic, with human-centric categories functioning as a vanishing mediator. In the same way as our own experience can be a way through the limits of the life we have lived, permitting a degree of understanding which transcends the experience which supported us in reaching beyond ourselves.

The outcome in either case is not certain; it takes ethical work and this is what these films challenge us to do.

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