You can see it on his face and in his eyes. You can see it on his hands and the way he wrings them together when he talks. And you can hear it in his primal voice, one searching deep within the realms of his own spirit for an answer—answers to the questions that puzzle us all, whether we are willing to witness them or not.
Jerzy Skolimowski is that man. Born in 1938. A Taurus, a bull by trade, it seems. An auteur, if there ever was one. A painter, a poet, a writer, a boxer—Yes, a boxer, as in pugilist, “I never knocked anybody out in the ring, but I came close,” he says, a wry smile appearing across his mouth. However, numerous titles aside, ultimately, he is just a man, and, if we must expand on that, he is a man that dreams.
And a man that recently dreamed of nature. A film about nature and all its inhabitants, whether it be nature’s creatures or nature’s emotions. Dog. Robot dog (yes, robot). Cat. Owl. Fox. Wolf. Ant. Donkey. EO—the name of the film and the name of the donkey, the star of the picture. Seen through its eyes. The horror, the compassion. “It was a film I knew I had to make,” Skolimowski says, the words falling out of his mouth like a war cry.
People responded mightily to EO, catapulting the dazzling and heart-rending film and its director into lauded territory, what with winning the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and subsequently being nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. Similar to the donkey in the film, Skolimowski’s road to this present day feels long, arduous, and multi-faceted in the lumps and bruises and triumphs in life. It all started early with the director helping pen Roman Polanski’s acclaimed 1962 film, Knife in the Water, followed up by various filmmaking (more than twenty films), painting, and poetry writing forays. Stumbling, reaching, even taking a hiatus from filmmaking for almost 18 years, it is a gift that he is now here, so clearly in tune with his equal parts poetic and left-jab-right-cross aesthetic.
Why did the film make such an impact? The following is documented to give clues. It may be because we, humans, are closer than we think to our animal brothers and sisters. It also may be because Mr. Skolimowski dared to put on film what most would only be capable of wincing at.
EO, of course, is centered around an animal, the donkey, in particular. So, can you speak about your personal relationship with animals?
I was always a friend of animals. Nearly all the time in my household growing up there was an animal. Either a dog or a cat, and since we moved to Poland in the early 21st Century after having a very beautiful house in Malibu, which, mind you, had a view of the entire horizon around us. Well, it was very difficult to find a replacement for such a view, so we decided to go completely the other way, and we found an old hunting lodge deep in a wild forest in a kind of lake area of Poland called Masuria, which is in the Northeast of the country. And this was a very special place, because it is far from any human contact. To drive to the nearest shop it takes more than half an hour, so we always buy food in bulk. But living in that house, far away from civilization had a special effect on us, because we became very close to nature. Whenever we left the house for a walk we were in a wild place and we kept meeting the wild animals; deer, foxes, rabbits. And, of course, we learned very soon that we are the intruders, this is their place, and with the full respect of them, we behaved in a certain manner. We were very withdrawn, watching our tracks. We let them pass peacefully, we stopped talking or making any extra sounds or rapid movements, and that respect for wild animals and for nature, I think, is very visible in EO. Because we made this film out of love for animals and nature.
That was such a powerful moment and such strange imagery to inject into all of this nature and visions of real animals—the way you just suddenly introduce this artificial creature momentarily. I’d like to bring this around to the youth of today: how do you feel about them being so influenced by technology, particularly cellphones, and how cut off the youth (and everyone, for that matter) are from nature. And, of course, there are places where young people and older people are living in more rural areas, but I feel like we are being forced more into metropolitan zones because that’s where the work is. What is your feeling about the youth’s relationship to nature these days and for the future?
I am concerned, and I am not optimistic, unfortunately. People have the tendency of going into the metropolitan areas and finding their joys and interests and obsessions there. They separate themselves from real nature and their own nature. I think we were quite lucky, myself and my wife, in finding that house far away, because we could have ended up being in the metropolitan city and losing contact with real life. EO, for me, was a film that I had to do. I had to voice the fate of the voiceless. The animals don’t cry publicly. They can’t say, ‘Why are you humans making such a massacre with our lives?’ I am especially sensitive about so-called industrial farming because that is a hell for the animals. We have all heard about the conditions in which those animals are kept and fed and forced to produce more and more and more meat for our stomachs, and, by the way, during the making of EO, we nearly stopped eating meat. Right now, we are not fully vegetarian unfortunately, we still have those habits that from time to time force us to commit the sin, but we have managed to reduce our consumption of meat by at least two-thirds, which I am very proud of.
What about audience reactions to the film?
I had dozens of the so-called Q&A’s after screening the film, and there was a kind of repetitive routine of those, so I developed patterns to my answers, and one of my more provocative answers was when I brought up the industrial farming, and I asked the obvious provocative question to my audience: do you have to eat bacon every morning? And the reaction was always the same—it was a little laughter or a kind of giggle, then a few people would start to clap, and then after ten or fifteen seconds, the whole room would be applauding. In a way, I was kind of awakening their consciousness. You know, it’s easy to say, ‘Okay, yes, we understand the problem,’ but it is not easy to actually cut meat consumption. I hope that EO would have some of the effect that people would maybe reduce their meat consumption, and as a result, industrial farming could be reduced, or, eventually, stopped completely or become illegal, which I pray will happen one day. From boxing to poetry, painting to filmmaking, how do you get your message across when you create your art? Basically, one really should try to shake people, and to punch them in the nose. For EO, I say, ‘Look! Don’t treat animals like objects—they are living creatures, as much as yourself. They have the same feelings and the same need for feeling safe and loved and accepted.’ People tend to treat animals like objects, like it’s a piece of wood, or something. And the robot scene is a metaphor, a kind of reminder that, if you eat all those animals, then you will be left with...what? Robots pretending to be your pets?
I have a clear litmus test of the state of my Zen, and it is when I walk my dog and how impatient I am with him—if I’m pulling him or if I’m relaxed and in the moment.
Many times I hear the same thing from people after seeing the film, ‘You know what I did? I went home, and I hugged my pets, apologizing for all the bad things I’ve done to my dog or cat or bird in the cage.’
As for humans, what is your process in working with actors in your films?
Well, it’s about dealing with egos. At the same time, I’m dependent on them. So I have to maneuver in a very delicate way, not to step on their egos, not to say something that could make them suspicious that I’m playing some kind of game. And, of course, it is different with every person. Usually, for me, it is easier to work with ladies as opposed to my leading men, because the male against male is much easier to arouse conflict. And the tenderness from my side is always welcome with the females. But, generally, I have to be delicate and diplomatic. But, me, myself, being rather spontaneous, I have to be careful not to show any anger.
As much as this film is about animals, you can’t help but look deeper into humanity—how humans behave—particularly when the donkey kicks the man in the face, or when the trucker gets his throat slit (not to mention that those methods are akin to how we slaughter animals, either by shooting them in the head or slitting their throat) and seeing the humans die in those sequences was very compelling: one, it felt good, in a way, because it felt like payback, and two, it revealed, when you see dead humans, that we are just as much animal as animals are when it is all said and done.
I’m happy that you saw all of that. Of course, those are some of the more alarming moments in the film, but it brings the question to the viewer: ‘Perhaps we [humans] also deserve such an ending like those two guys experienced, because of our wrong attitudes toward animals, because we are killing them with our knives and kicking them away when we don’t need them.’ But, yes, those are painful issues, and I had to be discrete, as much as I could, because people don’t really want to be punched in the face with those kinds of messages—they have to be sort of allusions, and I’m afraid that not all of my audience would read it as deeply as you. But, of course, I was counting on some people finding those messages, although they could be quite hidden.
It is interesting how reactive people get when they are told what to do, particularly as it pertains to more primal aspects of our lives like with food and what we should or shouldn’t be eating.
Right, see, if I was a well-known vegetarian I would maybe dare to say it louder than I did. But I am not pretending to be one. I am really like an average person.
Have you read The Golden Ass? It is the only extant novel written in Latin by Apuleius? It is about a man that is turned into a donkey and it reminded me of EO in certain ways.
Of course! I did and I read practically everything which should be read while dealing with this subject. I would like to point out another great book, which won the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Spanish writer, Juan Ramón Jiménez, called Platero y Yo (Platero and I), which is a beautiful book.
Remember what I mentioned before? The reaction from the audience that saw the film, and when I asked the question, ‘Do you have to eat bacon everyday?’ The reaction was always the same: a little giggle of surprise, and then a little applause, then a stronger applause, then nearly a hurrah from the whole room. That is very specific because it was repeated every time I asked that question.
Photographed by Lee Malone
Written by Augustus Britton
Location: Hakkasan Mayfair