Arts, Movies

Skolimowski’s ‘EO’ Questions Humans’ Coexistence With Animals

Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO invites its audience to endure brief glimpses of a donkey’s experience being persecuted by human society.

“Can’t you see it’s suffering? Let go, can’t you see it’s suffering?” an unidentified voice in the film says. 

EO is a depiction of a work animal subjected to both the love and hate of humans. Throughout the film, the limitations of human sympathy and humans’ ability to see pain and suffering in their environment are realized.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled EO as Poland’s submission for the 2023 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film on Jan. 24. The film follows EO (Tako), a live donkey, as its sole protagonist. Five other living donkeys acted as doubles for the role: Hola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela. 

Skolimowski opens the film with a shot of a circus performer quietly pleading with EO to get up and continue their act. The donkey complies and the show is saved. 

For the rest of the film, EO is treated in different ways by different humans—some thrash him, while others come to his rescue. After the circus that EO performed at was shut down, he is sent to work on a farm where he is seen as simply a cog in the machine rather than a living, breathing being. EO blends into the scenery, making him indistinguishable from the drab and oppressive setting of the farm. 

EO demonstrates that the extent by which animals can be sympathized with is intrinsically limited. Humans will forever see them as being meant to be enslaved and serve a purpose—whether it be circus spectacles or farm workers.

The movie follow’s EO’s journey after he decides to run away from the farm. With each attempt at escape, he is ultimately caught and brought back into the arms of human caretakers. 

The audience is met with the donkey’s sheer desperation, seen in his dark, sunken, glazed over eyes. Where a person would scream in agony while being tortured, EO helplessly trots away in fear.

In one scene, Magda (Sandra Drzymalska), EO’s human friend and original owner, is seen spending EO’s birthday with the donkey. 

“May all your dreams come true. I want you to be happy,” Magda says. 

But after she’s taken away by her boyfriend, EO never sees Magda—one of the few positive influences in the animal’s life—again.  

While the film depicts EO having emotions, some humans ignore them while others pay attention to them, presenting the question of whether or not humans are capable of sympathizing with animals, or if animals are simply seen as workers.

EO is full of small moments of comfort that quickly become terror, which slowly gnaw away at the viewers’ understanding of the film as a project. The movie is presented as fragmented episodes of EO’s life, which are not chronological. This element along with a plotline very loosely constructed around EO attempting to find Magda, indicates that for animals, life is experienced as merely a string of events, rather than a cohesive narrative. 

While drone shots of industrial settings nod toward the theme of humans’ destruction of nature a la Koyaanisqatsi, the plot bears more toward tackling the idea that humans project their emotions and thoughts onto animals, and often mistreat them. Skolimowski plays with a dissonant and unsettling film score and a set replete with red strobe lighting over the movie’s overall deep gray finish.

Skolimowski plays on art-house film techniques, entertaining absurdist elements as a way to bridge episodes of EO’s life. After one particular beating, EO is momentarily turned into a robotic skeletal machine In another, EO is listening along to a mother reading an unintelligible and complicated story to her toddler. The donkey seals his lips in moments of distress, leaving his widened, shell-shocked eyes to haunt movie-goers.

Whereas the burden for work animals is physical, the movie depicts EO’s psychologically taxing  escape. He becomes a tired and beaten packhorse as he continues to interact with human existence. Once being rejected by the natural world, EO finds himself running disoriented on the city sidewalk toward the stands of a rowdy soccer game and parading into a bar, all of which end with violent culminations. 

While Skolimowski could have safely skated by as a critic against animal cruelty or industrialization, the director also pushes for a deeper message of how humans view their surroundings.

The humans in the movie empathize with EO’s burden, but only if the donkey can still serve their needs. When EO is covered in dried blood after a beating, the characters have sympathy for him, but once he is well enough to be put back to work, he once again fades into the background of human life. Humans are ultimately only interested in themselves. As seen in EO, the bond between humans and animals can be powerful but is ultimately fleeting as they are unable to reconcile different existences.. 

EO demonstrates the effects of humans’ projection onto pets, animals, and the inanimate tools of the environment. EO at some point was viewed as all three, and as the protagonist of Skolimowski’s narrative, we are invited to see ourselves in him. 

Until the film ends, where the viewers then leave him alone on the screen. 

February 9, 2023