Contained within its sly title, as well as its inventive narrative, Spanish filmmaker Chico Pereira’s second nonfiction feature, Donkeyote, is a modern-day pastorale, at once an homage to the director’s childhood hero, his Uncle Manolo, and Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tale of a man who sets out to become one of the heroes of his own imagination. The story weaves together fragments of memory, dreams, metaphysics — and a good dose of illusion. Playing the role of Sancho Panza is the elegant, stalwart and self-possessed donkey of the title, a burro called Gorrión (“sparrow”, in Spanish). With his dog Zafrana and Gorrión as his traveling companions and support team, the 73-year-old Manuel (Manolo) Molera Aparicio attempts to journey from Spain to America, where he plans on traversing The Trail of Tears, the westward route on which over 20,000 members of the Cherokee Nation were forced to walk as part of a violent forced removal from their ancestral homelands in 1830.
All of the various locations the trio passes through, as well as a painful family rift, remain in the liminal spaces surrounding the narrative of the journey. In lieu of rehashed or revisionist personal histories, the film beautifully illustrates the way a life can be shaped and reconfigured by intrepidly putting one foot in front of the other in stubborn forward momentum, even through the most inhospitable of landscapes. Just as in his first film, Pablo’s Winter, the director has introduced us to an old man that missed his calling as a movie star. Written by Pereira and his cousins Manuel Pereira and Gabriel Molera, and working, once again, with close friends Julian Schwanitz, Mark Deas, and Nick Gibbon (cinematographer, sound designer, and editor, respectively), the making of the film was truly a family affair.
In a previous interview I did with Chico about Pablo’s Winter from 2012 — a portrait of a retired miner’s quotidian existence in a small Spanish village where nothing much happens — Pereira explained his passion to tap into “this neo-realist tradition of capturing the pace of a life lived, with all the ambiguities and all the imperfections, the moments when nothing is happening. …Let’s wait; let’s just stay. Out of that footage, we get our two or three minutes that express something.” I talked to Chico again recently about what he wanted to wait and search for this time out. He spoke to me from his current home in Santa Cruz, where he is pursuing his doctorate at the University of California. He had just returned from the International Film Festival Rotterdam in The Netherlands, where Donkeyote had its world premiere, one of eight films in the festival’s Big Screen Competition. (Interestingly, the winning film was , a fiction film by Kirsten Tan about a man on a journey with an elephant. There’s a theme here.) The film will have its North American premiere as one of the feature selections at this year’s True/False.
Filmmaker: We talked about this when you made Pablo’s Winter, these compromises that are inherent in making a nonfiction piece, and all the ambiguities that present themselves in the ways in which the action does (or does not) take place when the camera is present. What kind of specific challenges did you have this time shooting with your uncle? Obviously, the intimacy you have with Manolo is built in since you’ve known him all your life. You’re also dealing again within this macho culture that defines very much what a man is supposed to do and how he is to act at every stage of his life.
Chico Pereira: An anthropology professor here at Santa Cruz asked me if I was making these films in order to learn how to be a man. [laughter] The male figures in my films are varied, though. With Pablo, this was much more about the worker – as well as the family and the women supporting him. But with Manolo, I don’t think of him in those terms, as an element of the culture. The connection was deeply personal in this case, and it was also a connection that had been broken. We took the opportunity of making this film together to rebuild the bond. But nonetheless, the film does capture the strong patriarchal system in Spain, where the man goes out to travel and see the world, to search for freedom, and the woman stays behind at home waiting for his return. But that wasn’t really my main purpose behind this portrait.
Filmmaker: You chose to not reveal this close connection in any obvious way until the very last part of the film, when it is clear that Manolo is related to you. The history of the family rift is handled quite subtly, as well. Manolo’s journey is what illustrates the heart and soul of the man as we watch him negotiate this impossible dream of his. There are some captivating experiments here with POV and mise-en-scène.
Pereira: When we were kids, we used to go with this man to the countryside, all the nephews. Manolo could turn the most mundane thing into a fantasy for us; he would make adventures for us constantly. When the family break took place, we were too little to understand what was going on and didn’t have the agency ourselves to carry on any kind of relationship with him after that. Twenty-five years later, we come back to his house, and now we are filmmakers. And we told him, okay, not it’s our turn to take you on an adventure.
In essence, we pick up where we left it, in the countryside. All the low-level shooting is meant to represent a child’s point of view, seeing him once again as this larger-than-life person, caught in the child’s gaze. During this process, we realized that the story of a man wanting to go somewhere was really not the point — it was not about a man leaving. It was about a return from this self-imposed exile. At the end, this tango he sings about volver resonated for us in a somewhat different way than it might be viewed in terms of the narrative of the film. The family issue was not something we set up to explore at all. It was very difficult to accommodate because there were so many people that needed to be mentioned in conversation, people who wouldn’t have had the ability to respond in any way with their side of the story.
Filmmaker: When you were kids, Gorrión was not around. At the time of filming, we learn that he’s ten years old. Do donkeys tend to live long lives?
Pereira: I think he must be in his 40s in human terms. But I think they can live up to, perhaps, 25 years.
Filmmaker: He’s a magnificent animal. He doesn’t comport himself as a mere beast of burden, the way we generally tend to think of donkeys. In all of this, of course, is the temptation to constantly anthropomorphize the animals. It’s what we naturally do when we see animals interacting with humans in this deeply connected way. The same goes for Zafrana, the loyal but very mischievous dog that needs constant discipline.
Pereira: More than anything, I think that Manolo’s relationship with these animals is what the film is documenting. In other words, I think it’s the most documentary aspect. From the beginning, both Zafrana and Gorrión are almost in every shot, and we always see the three of them together. They eat together, they drink at the same time, they sleep at the same time, and of course, they walk together. To establish this sense of family was very important because of what happened in the past. It changed his relationship to animals. I think these relationships are a direct consequence of the solitude that arose in his life. So this idea of family might be a way to escape this anthropomorphism. Obviously, we don’t know what goes through the minds of these animals. But what we do know is that whatever happens, it effects all three of them and they each, in their own way, deal with whatever is happening. But they are together. And they communicate with one another in various ways — man to animal, and also animal to animal. This is a way of understanding friendship or understanding how humans and animals can enrich each other’s lives, opening our own concepts of friendship and spending complex time with non-humans. We do it with our machines, our computers, with our phones. Why not with more responsive creatures that can give and receive love and friendship, another border we can cross if we want?
Filmmaker: As the only profound human relationship we see in the film, his scenes with Paca (Paquita), his beloved and adoring daughter, also have their own language, both verbal and non-verbal. We know that, perhaps, she has been the only member of the family that’s always been loyal to him, despite the rift — or maybe because of it. They both are such deep romantics in the way they not only see the world, but about the shared memories they have when she was a little girl and her father created these beautiful fantasy worlds for her.
Pereira: Paquita really fears losing Manolo, as most of us do when faced with aging, fragile parents. He’s been the biggest inspiration for her, and she admires him for everything that he is. After filming him for a week, it was time to tell Paquita what we were planning to do. She didn’t know anything about this big walk. So in the scene where they’re having lunch together, I told her before we started to film that whatever Manolo was going to say to her, she needed to take it seriously, take it as something real. Normally, I wouldn’t have said anything at all to her and let the scene play out, but I also knew that she could very likely turn to us and say, “Are you joking, guys?” At the same time, this is a reenactment of Manolo’s life. He’s always been considered a bit of an eccentric in the village. He was the first vegetarian in the ‘70s; he would run barefoot and naked through the countryside when there was a full moon, etc. [laughter] He’s been dealing with this all his life — people thinking he’s a bit crazy. His dream to get to America to walk the Trail of Tears is an extension of this. It was me that told him about these trails here in the US and encouraged him to come. He said yes, I would like to come, but I would have to bring Gorrión. He would not dream of coming without the donkey. As a filmmaker, this sparked a light.
And we really were trying to make that happen — to bring him and the donkey here to do a long walk. Paquita knew it was a serious proposition. But we had to work at diminishing Paquita’s concern because she wanted to be in support of her father’s dreams, as always. We would be traveling for a month in unpredictable circumstances. Manolo has health issues; he needs to have his lunch and dinner at certain times. Being nomadic, everything is always open to any circumstance. She was worried, and I felt that pressure, so she and I talked a lot through it all. This is how the stress test scene came up and Manolo was all for it. It ended up being quite a dramatic scene. It put us all on the edge, really.
In the scene towards the end where we see he’s in a lot of pain, this is the first time – and the only time – you hear me addressing him, asking him if he’s okay. These human negotiations were necessary for all of it – dealing with his past, the stress test, his health, Paquita’s worry. The story was being told with this fictional approach; that was the goal. And by “breaking” the fiction at certain moments, this could very effectively show what these relationships consisted of between those who were behind the camera and those in front. There was a lot of play between the two going on. It was our idea for him to call the travel agency to ask for some help planning a transnational journey for a man and his donkey. He knew they were going to laugh at him. He was willing to expose himself in this comic way in these surreal moments. This is not filming some guy with this crazy idea. These moments were useful to show these negotiations and collaborations.
Filmmaker: I did feel this homage to a man that, even though he is frail now, is still larger than life to you and that was probably the most instrumental influence in why you and your cousins became artists and creative storytellers. He was the one who taught you how to unleash your imaginations.
Pereira: Yes! Of course there were moments when I asked myself if we were going to be able to continue the journey to whatever conclusion there would be. Those moments made it clear to me that I wasn’t going to do anything in service to the film for the film’s sake. If we had to return the day after we started for whatever reason, we would have done that. These gestures of breaking the fiction and entering “real life”, were meant to illustrate the rules of the game, that we were in no way going to do this at any cost to someone’s safety, health, well-being.
Filmmaker: In service to that, the animals, particularly Zafrana, are the caretakers too. These companions also made it possible to explore this space between Manolo’s idealism and the reality of the situation. You turn their natural instincts into the stuff of story.
Pereira: In the past, right before Manolo had his two heart attacks, each time the dog would come and start licking his hands. He would exclaim in annoyance: Why is this crazy dog licking my hands? Then just seconds later he realized he was having a heart attack. And in terms of the donkey, this was a formal decision to create him in the role of Sancho Panza in every staged scene. It was important to share the shakier moments with the audience as part of the narrative to express these relationships.
This idea, for me, is especially evocative in these scenes where Gorrión is trying to remove Manolo’s hat from his head. This shows the difference between the character being portrayed and the man. When Manolo is wearing this big Stetson, we see the cowboy, Don Quixote, the man who can do anything. Without the hat, we see his gray hair, his age, his frailty — he’s an old man. To us, it was as if Gorrión was trying to say, hey, it’s not necessary for Manolo to always be this big character. In those moments when the journey is derailed by outside forces, or when Manolo is being told that what he wants to do is impossible, Gorrión would try to remove Manolo’s hat. He’s the one that seems to want to try to disrupt the narrative in this way in these intense moments. He does it several times.
You can read certain ways in which this is a stubborn animal, as we know donkeys to be. But he is accompanying a man that is even more stubborn that he is. We see Gorrión challenging this stubbornness, I think, by resisting in certain instances — particularly those times when he displays unwillingness to go further. With the cutting in certain scenes, we tried to show these instances where he sees much more than his master can – that “donkey eye” is almost like HAL 9000 [laughter]. Gorrión knows everything and has known how it will all play out since the beginning.
Crossing that river was necessary to our plan and to continue the journey to meet someone in the hills for a night shoot. We had a big van for the equipment and to charge batteries, download material, to hold all our stuff for a month on the road. Manolo certainly didn’t expect Gorrión’s resistance at the bridge. I asked him what he would do if we didn’t have such a plan or the apparatus of the film in place. He told me that he would just wait until Gorrión felt ready to cross. So we waited. We waited overnight and knew that this was a circumstance that we could play out in the editing by showing this patient waiting for the animal to be ready. The journey stopped momentarily to wait for him and we ended up sleeping on the boat that night. Covering that material turned out to be a very key scene, obviously.
Maybe we couldn’t go to America. But with this setting of the duel, maybe we could consider that we are already in the America of Manolo’s imagination and that we were about to cross the Mississippi. That was why we searched for an old-time saloon and found this canteen by the train tracks, our homage to the Wild West, any opportunity to be playful and imagine things by finding substitutes for this aborted American journey. We did not want to hide the fact that we were mobilizing in a way to show everything we know about film and the various genres we could play with.
Filmmaker: The landscapes they walk through are quite derivative – no real markers or guides to help orientate us to where we are, or even how much distance they’re actually covering. The timelessness of the countryside and the modern impositions made on the landscape reside side by side. The massive herd of sheep jockeying with automobiles on the road is a great illustration of this strange displacement.
Then there is the omnipresence of fences, or borders if you will, absolutely everywhere they attempt to trek through. They are in almost every shot in which they are walking. Perhaps because of what’s happening globally, this is very much on my mind, but that really created huge resonances for me, a potent signifier of how quixotic and how risky this journey really is in today’s world. These are serious fences, not to be scaled or crossed.
Pereira: I’m so glad that you noticed this because my thought, honestly, was that there might not be enough fences in the film to make this clear enough. This limitation of movement from the physiological – Manolo’s swollen knee – to the wider sense of the severe limitations to his dream journey is not meant to be subtle. This is a man who wants to roam freely in the world. But the world is made now for services and money if one wants to travel. It’s not for people. If individuals want to move about freely, then it fucks up the system. I mean, even when we were trying to walk in the countryside, there were fences everywhere. We couldn’t sleep here; we couldn’t cross a piece of land there. These were public paths that are supposed to remain open and passable but were appropriated and illegally fenced off by landowners.
Manolo turned out to be the most modern individual among a landscape of people and structures that felt it was fine to make fun of him, a silly old man. These people show they have such narrow ideas of what it means to live and be in this world as a human being. From the macro to the micro, these restrictions were everywhere. The shepherds you mentioned have the same problem. These are nomads that are also now dealing with restrictions that are not part of their history or their lifestyle. The guys in the canteen are also on the margins of society, as is this anachronistic place of the canteen itself, frozen in time and doing its best to keep its distance from the contemporary world, even though it’s by the train tracks. It’s the same with the truck drivers, another nomadic group of men whose mode of transport is also their home. The ocean at the end is the Mediterranean – the body of water that separates Europe from Africa. We know now for certain how many people die on a daily basis in the effort to cross that sea. When Manolo arrives at the beach with the dog and the donkey, he says that it seems like it’s going to swallow them. This is really exciting to me, to be able to offer what on the surface looks to be a whimsical story about a man on a journey with his animals. We are sophisticated enough to not have to stop and point these things out — they’re right there for us to notice and think about.
Filmmaker: The final scene is one of the most hilarious episodes as we listen to Manolo serenade Zafrana and Gorrión as they’re leaving the beach. He immediately turns this failed journey into a ballad, into narrative.
Pereira: Exactly, all of it gets turned automatically into another fantastical story, part of the legend of Manolo. When he gets back home, he will regale his daughter and anyone who will listen about this amazing tale. He’s also protecting himself from all the disappointments and the judgment he’s experienced from other people through this kind of performative act.
Filmmaker: “We have been perfectly documented,” he says at the end of the song — the most appropriate meta comment of them all. I think of Pablo and all these solitary eccentrics we come across in documentary — their lives are so circumscribed, for the most part, and yet they have this profound understanding of how the world works. An almost, we could say, animal intelligence.
Pereira: That beach episode was fascinating. We spent the night there — it was the end of our journey, obviously. In the early morning hours, this policeman came and shining his big flashlight in our faces demanded to know what the fuck we were doing there with a donkey? Manolo genuinely did not understand the question. He was naïve to the fact that this spot holds scenes of human trafficking and drug trafficking. And to a cop, that donkey with the saddlebags was a big red flag. He thought Gorrión was a smuggler. [laughter] Since this happened in the middle of the night and took us by surprise, we didn’t film this, but that episode is what builds in the song Manolo sings as they’re leaving the beach.
By expressing that they have been “perfectly documented” signifies the requirement to have the right documentation when the cops show up; it has to do with the microchip that is implanted in Gorrión. But it also describes the way in which people might naturally ask if this is a documentary or a fiction – as this eccentric man is walking towards the windmills we see in the background. No matter the trappings of a fictional story, at the end of the film you know a lot about the real man, his relationship with animals, and the relationship he has with his daughter. In the second volume of “Don Quixote”, Quixote becomes very aware that his life has turned into a book. He’s dreamed of becoming a hero in the cavalry novels and he references the book that tells his own story – the one in which he is featured.
Filmmaker: Who is Tomás Newman Galán, the man the film is dedicated to?
Pereira: Tomás is the fourth nephew. He was a bit older than me and the other cousins. Years ago, he died at the age of 27. He was the first one to have this relationship with Manolo and he was Paquita’s best friend when we were kids. He’s not around anymore, but we wanted to include him in this story, too. As an homage that plays with time and memory, the bigger issues of a life lived in a distinct way out of choice should be the focus. Maybe all these adventures have to do with the specific breach Manolo is not able to close. The most difficult journey for him is to just cross the street and go back to the family home where he hasn’t set foot in thirty years. That’s the real delicate negotiation. That’s the big journey. Not going to America. The lived experience of making the film took us all towards much more complex and exciting places.