Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski didn’t always have a donkey in mind when he set out to make the film that would eventually become EO, his acclaimed Cannes Jury Prize-winning drama that is now Poland’s entry to the Oscars.
Speaking at the BFI London Film Festival following a screening of the deeply moving film, which follows the life of a circus-born donkey — EO (named after his braying “Eee—Oh” noise) — and his various adventures with some of the more peculiar and unpleasant elements of society, the director said that the original goal was simply to make a film with an animal in one of the lead roles because he was “bored with linear narration.” With an animal as a main character and therefore little dialog, he hoped it would offer something different and less predictable when it came to storytelling.
“So we were looking for the right kind of animal, and eliminated immediately dogs and cats, because there are so many films about those animals, and some of them aren’t particularly great,” he said.
The inspiration for Skolimowski — alongside writing and production partner (and wife) Ewa Piaskowska — came on a visit to Sicily in 2019, thanks to one of the “living” nativity scenes that many villages put on during the festive period.
“It was really very impressive, because it was the whole village involved and they all perform every year during Christmas and New Year,” he said. “They show life as it was and had costumes, tools, props, they baked pizza, they squeezed grapes for wine, the olives for olive oil, the drunken men are playing cards.”
Right at the far end of the performance, there was a noisy barn, filled with animals.
“There were chickens on the ground, and geese, then pigs, sheep and cows, and an enormous bull with huge horns. And in the middle of it was Joseph, standing like an Oscar figure with a stick, and next to him was Mary and baby Jesus. The chickens were flying over Joseph’s head, and with my eye I followed the chicken landing on the other side and there, in the corner, completely separated, was a donkey,” he said. “And immediately it took all my attention, because of this motionless animal, that wasn’t making a sound or giving any emotion. It was like an observer from another world. I was fascinated by his wide-open eyes, looking with incredible melancholy on that scene, which was full of life.
Once Piaskowska had also seen the animal, which was “just standing and observing,” Skolimowski said they both understood that “this is our hero, our protagonist. Because what you have seen in his eyes was a mysterious comment on the scene around him, so we thought that if we can find the right story for this animal, every time we go for a close-up of his eyes, it will be an incredible comment on that scene.”