Chico Pereira’s Donkeyote could be summarised in many ways: as an immersive exploration of mental and physical health, and their relationship with masculinity; a meditation on culture and ageing; or the simple story of the elderly protagonist Manolo and his hydrophobic donkey attempting to travel from southern Spain to the USA to complete the gruelling Trail of Tears.
Beautifully blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, this film is poised in places, and honest in others. A scene in which the wilful donkey Gorrión refuses to board a boat over the course of two days is so perfectly comical it must be staged, and yet, when Manolo clutches his chest and the filmmaker (his nephew) worriedly cries out “uncle!” from behind the camera, the viewer too fears for his health. Despite this fourth-wall-breaking interlude, the film is neither reflexive nor self-referential, but simple and elegant, much like Manolo.
In terms of plot, there is not a huge amount to describe. From the moment we first meet Manolo and Gorrión they walk continuously and purposefully – initially, simply to pass the time, and later, towards their goal: the cargo ship they hope will take them to the United States. Regardless, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to determine that for this pair the destination is rarely the priority.
Attempting to recreate his purposeful stride on a treadmill in a doctor’s office, Manolo becomes breathless, and is warned not to push himself. However, ignoring both mockery and concern from travel agents, doctors and family, the man and his donkey set off for America, walking through the desert, along busy highways, through post-industrial cityscapes, always towards the sea.
While they walk, Manolo cheerfully monologues – often seemingly for only Gorrión’s benefit – providing a soothing soundtrack, as tight shots intimately frame their faces. This breeds more than just familiarity. There is something familial about the way in which he interacts with the camera. At times, it is as though Manolo is our uncle too.
While the film does not explicitly state that Manolo has mental health problems, there is a sense throughout that his journey is the cure for some psychological ill. Often it seems that his constant trekking is remedying the feeling that he is out of step with the world he lives in, that his self-imposed isolation is treating the social isolation he experiences at home. This is a journey during which he tests his boundaries, proves his capabilities, and achieves something, even if it wasn’t his goal. It is meditative, medicinal even.
Donkeyote is not just a beautiful film, but a reflective and contemplative experience. The documentary is punctuated with silences during which I often paused to collect my own thoughts. In the evening scenes, as Manolo and Gorrión set up camp, and the hot Spanish sun and crunching boots give way to soft and silent silhouettes against desert sunsets, it is almost as though the film is reminding you to stop and breathe.
If you’re wonder how the journey will end, you’ve missed the point.
by Alice Smith