Review: ‘Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas’

Doc confronts and redefines the conventional Western understanding of international development

5 mins read

Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas
(Sweden/Germany/Finland, 80min.)
Dir. Joakim Demmer


Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas confronts and redefines the conventional Western understanding of international development by examining the toll this practice has taken on Ethiopia.

Known for its fertility and biodiversity, Ethiopia grapples with famine and poverty, while relying on food aid to feed its starving population. Simultaneously, amidst the heightened global interest in commercial farming, the Ethiopian government has started leasing hectares of its land to international agricultural investors. As famine looms in Ethiopia, the government keeps allowing private companies to export food overseas while their own population is starving. Their scandalous behaviour is contributing to civil uprising, mass displacement and environmental hazards.

In his documentary, Demmer chronicles six years of domestic conflict caused mainly by foreign land-investments, which are often disguised as fundamental support for Ethiopia’s development. Through extensive research and in-person interviews, Demmer carefully divulges the roots of its inception and portrays the deteriorating state of affairs during the documented years.

Demmer finds the subjects, whose views and involvement in the region help propel his film to its climactic epiphany. He travels to the Gambela region, which has been predominantly affected by the governmental negligence and international exploitation. In Gambela, he talks to the region’s indigenous people, who have been forcefully evicted, displaced and even abused by the military. The director also cultivates a relationship with a local independent journalist, who risks his life trying to expose the crimes of the Ethiopian government. As a result, the accounts of these interviewees strike with intensity and urgency.

Demmer’s film fills the vacuum of ignorance and indifference created by a corrupt government benefiting from international investments. His focus on the Ethiopian Indigenous populace and their battle for freedom and justice captures the universal problem of modern day colonization and slavery. And the filmmaker’s emphasis on the authorities’ failure to recognize the environmental hazard caused by foreign investors speaks to a global experience of discounting eco-crimes perpetuated in the name of economical prosperity. How can ordinary people protect themselves against multinational corporations that claim to help them while doing the opposite?

Although Demmer doesn’t come close to answering this question, his film offers a pragmatic overview of the country’s economic and political struggle and draws a humanizing portrait of its people. Politically charged, the film also challenges the painful impunity and hypocrisy of foreign investors, like the World Bank, that have demonstrated their indifference towards human rights violations perpetuated by the Ethiopian government.

Demmer’s adherence to a chronological timeline combined with the filmmaker’s well-structured build-up creates a sense of anticipation and intrigue, which invigorates the film’s content. The director’s resilience in exposing the adversaries of the conflict adds credibility and potency to his film. While Dead Donkeys’ narration style is mainly methodical and undeviating, it has many poetic and stylistically distinctive moments, which soften Demmer’s clear-cut storytelling. The film’s opening sequence, for instance, features several Ethiopians singing about the harm of foreign investors on the backdrop of a picturesque rural landscape. Through cinematography and saturated color pallet, Demmer empathizes the beauty and innocence of the land torn and divided by greed and corruption.

While Demmer’s film falls under the categories of environmental and human rights documentaries, it stands out through its investigative journalism style and ability to withhold the information for as long as it creates meaningful and fulfilling results. While visually strong, humanizing and informative, Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas performs best as a thriller, taking us places and exposing plot twists that are least expected.

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