I learned about the nobility of donkeys from Lawrence Wright discussing his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Covering a group as famously prickly and totalitarian as Scientology poses unique narrative challenges, involving the reader’s sense identification with the story. A reader won’t be engaged if they can’t empathize with any of the participants–they must to be able to see themselves getting swept up with the Church of Scientology if the book is to have any weight. Wright told the audience that he solved this problem in 2011 with the defection of filmmaker Paul Haggis. Scientology had for decades been a great white (litigious) whale of journalism, but now he had a chance to tell the story because Wright had found his “donkey.” To the snickering audience, Wright said “I don’t mean any disrespect, the donkey is a noble animal. The donkey carries a heavy load, like my donkey carries the reader through the story.” The donkey gets a bad rap given how it’s provided us reliable, unpretentious service for 5,000 years. People get frustrated with updates to the iPhone OS, but its name has never becomes synonymous with “dumb.” It was a joy, then, to see this film’s eponymous trucker, Mahmood Kiyani Falavarjani, defend the noble donkey. Arash Lahooti’s 2013 film Trucker and the Fox is full of moments like this, part of an incredible true story of an animal-loving long-hauler.
Falavarjani’s day job is driving a truck, but nights and weekends he makes short films starring animals. Trucker and the Fox begins in a hospital, where Falavarjani has been institutionalized following a breakdown after the death of his beloved fox. The trucker goes back to work, turning to a regimen of medication and yoga, but he knows that the only real solution for him is to go back to work. We see some of Falavarjani’s films at on outdoor screening–a fox trying unsuccessfully to steal a hen’s clutch, a kitten wrestling aggressively with a raven, a raven fighting off a child threatening her nest. His next project is his most ambitious yet: a romance between two donkeys, with a raven cameo a small role for a new vulpine star.
Trucker and the Fox is the story of Falavarjani’s recovery and the production of his new film. Falavarjani sets out to catch a new fox, talking sweetly into a burrow that hides a den of foxes in the hope that he won’t have to set a trap. He and his assistant purchase two donkeys and film eyeline matches between the two along a traditional 180° axis of action, just like in any romcom meet-cute. He visits the trap again, finds it empty, and considers buying a fox, though he can’t afford the 5m rial price tag. Its during one of these nighttime trips to the trap with his assistant that Falavarjani muses about the nobility of the donkey. Though the production process is healthy for Falavarjani, it takes a toll on his work and family life. The process is hard on his wife, towards whom he directs a lot of grief over not having yet caught a fox, and the trucker is given a dressing-down by his boss, who grows tired of hearing “‘my raven ate my fox’ or ‘my donkey ate my raven’!”
It’s the sequences with his daughter that the weird beauty of what Falavarjani does is most evident. Watching him play with his daughter and her kitten is touching, showing a very genuine love both for his family and animals. More impressive is watching how Falavarjani trains his animals. During a Q&A session with other truck drivers after the outdoor screening, he explained how much work goes into making his films, and we see this process as he trains a raven. To the delight of his daughter, Falavarjani trains the bird to say a series of phrases and defend a remote control from his hand. Each time he reaches, the bird clutches the clicker, pecks, and bristles.
One interaction with his daughter shows the tenderness of an animal lover, the next shows the tenacity and patience of a filmmaker, but a third shows the dark side of anthropomorphizing a wild creature. Falavarjani, his wife and daughter are in his backyard, working and playing. The whole menagerie is behind them: chickens, the two donkeys, his daughter’s duckling and the fox, chained to a stump. Falavarjani is trying halfheartedly to separate the fox and duckling with his shovel, but the fox darts at the duckling and tackles it. His daughter starts crying, and Falavarjani smacks it on the muzzle in reproach, punishing it for acting on instinct.
There’s a sequence in Grizzly Man in which Timothy Treadwell sits over the front-half of a fox whom he had “befriended,” crying about the cruelty inflicted on it. The love he has for the animals around him is genuine, but the ideas he has about the natural order are naïve. In a hilarious interaction, Falavarjani is describing the plot of his newest opus, in which two donkeys fall in love, get married, and then both die. After one dies of natural cause, his assistant asks him “does the other kill himself?” Of course not, he retorts, “he dies of grief!” Values like cruelty or kindness are of no consequences to wild animals, just like Falavarjani’s fox isn’t the duckling’s sibling, nor could donkeys be married.
Trucker and the Fox is both a story about a unique filmmaker and the joys of loving animals, but there’s also the edge of what we can expect from animals. A donkey is a beast of burden, and a raven has a brain the size of my thumbnail, so it’s one thing to use them for setting up point-of-view shots. With a wild animal like a fox, though, this proximity to civilization risks imbuing them with traits that aren’t natural to them. In addition to being fascinating and hilarious, Trucker and the Fox touches on one of the most fraught questions about our personal relationships with animals: at what point does loving something wild do more harm than good?
Trucker and the Fox was part of the Sofia International Film Festival’s (SIFF) 2014 program