In the history of cinema, French director Albert Lamorisse is a unique figure. His intense focus on three subjects—children, animals, and flight—is distinctive, and the fact that all of his works clock in under ninety minutes (and most under an hour) further marks him as anomalous. The films’ short run times may be related to Lamorisse usually having children in mind as his audience, but they may also be due to the painstaking, risk-running nature of these productions; every moment on-screen was a struggle to capture. For an artist so widely associated with family-friendly fare, he was remarkably drawn to toil and danger.
Born in Paris in 1922, Lamorisse was a daydreamer in his youth, unable to focus in school. Nothing seemed to interest him—until he discovered film. After graduating from France’s national film school in 1945, he headed to Tunisia, where he helped photograph a documentary short, Kairouan, and then made his own, Djerba (1947), about the potters on that island. While there, he also hatched the idea for his first fiction piece, Bim, the Little Donkey (1951), in which a boy named Abdallah must fight to stop his beloved donkey from being stolen, first by a spoiled rich boy, then by criminals.
Bim immediately established the director’s meticulous approach: he spent a year planning it and four months shooting it—an extravagant schedule for a short film, one might think, but perhaps essential for a production with a cast consisting almost entirely of children and animals. Lamorisse reported that the baby donkeys used in the film drank fifty-five bottles of milk a day. However, he added, what he’d heard about donkeys being stubborn, stupid, and truculent was not to be trusted; he had nothing but praise for the discipline of his four-legged thespians. “I am,” Lamorisse said, “a friend of the donkey more than any animal.”
The film is reminiscent of the work of the Children’s Film Foundation, a charitable concern in Britain that between 1951 and 1988 made shortish features for and with children, frequently presenting empowering scenarios in which kids triumph over wicked adults, often gangs of thieves, as occurs in Bim. The title donkey in Lamorisse’s film is a rather passive character, like Robert Bresson’s Balthazar, generally reduced to the status of a prop. But the sight of the little fellow nestled in the arms of young Abdallah is adorable.
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