‘Welcome to heaven on earth’ is one of few lines of dialogue in David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s latest documentary which puts donkey ‘actors’ centre stage. The camerawork is simple and quietly observant, and the sound design is continuously immersive. No interviews or dialogue interrupt this unobtrusive approach. No explanations are given. The result is a meditative, hypnotic cinematic flow of donkey behaviour much of which remains indecipherable. Sanctuary deliberately recalls Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). It is also inspired by David Abram’s book Becoming Animal (2011). Abram argues that we have lost our ability to apprehend the sensuous natural world amidst our on-screen news obsessed virtual frenzy.
Sanctuary allows the viewer to leave the anthropomorphic realm, and enter a quasi-mysterious world of rustling straw, munching jaws, the industrial clanking of metal doors, the thud of multiple hooves on turf, antennae-like ears flickering back and forth at the communal feeding manger, and many a snorting exhale of donkey breath. Gazing back at the camera with timid blinks, showing wide-eyed apprehension, pacing nervously in their stalls, calling out to other donkeys, these animals foster empathy in us as we witness their rehabilitation. Perhaps ‘heaven on earth’ is indeed a place without judgment or cruelty, in which simple needs are provided, with understanding and tolerance? Entering into dialogue with Bresson's intimation that we are all Balthazars, Redmon and Sabin promote the possibility of empathy and a vision of sharing a non-human experience.
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