Doc of the Day: Zoo Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Zoo

Posted in Days of Docs by - April 10, 2012

Go inside the world of the last great taboo. It claimed one man’s life. This is his story.

Dir. Robinson Devor, 2007, 76 min

Venturing into the extremes of human nature is a dicey proposition. Artists risk falling into sensationalism and exploitation, and even if they successfully avoid those pitfalls, they will invariably still be accused of doing so. Such condemnation came for Zoo. The Baltimore Sun claimed that it “wallow[s] in perversity.” It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. In fact, the surgical precision with which director Robinson Devor maintains a balance between non-judgmental remove and empathetic identification is nothing sort of extraordinary. Zoo could be one of the most restrained movies about depravity ever made.

I hate feeling like I have to post a disclaimer, but when I say that this film deals in extreme subject matter, know that I mean extreme. It’s about bestiality, to put it bluntly. And while nothing in this review goes into any grotesque details, I will discuss some rather unpleasant events. So if you don’t think you can handle this stuff, don’t read on, and don’t seek out this doc. But know that if you do so, you’ll be missing out on a tremendous, fascinating piece of work.

The birth of the Internet allowed people with the most out-there, isolated “tastes” to find and connect with one another. In Washington state, a few zoophiles, or “zoos,” formed a small club devoted to their shared enthusiasm on a remote farm near the town of Enumclaw. To look at these people in the normal world, you probably could not guess at their hidden inclinations.

One man, “Mr. Hands,” was a Boeing engineer and devoted family man, who also appeared in multiple videos featuring a horse anally penetrating him. In 2005, he suffered a perforated colon during one such session, and later died of internal bleeding. The subsequent police investigation exposed the goings-on at the farm. As a result of the case, Washington formally banned bestiality, after over a hundred years of the practice being technically legal in the state.

If Werner Herzog and Errol Morris had a baby, it would be something like Zoo. Devor refuses absolutely to comment on what he shows us, presenting these events and the perspectives of a few people who experienced them as close to they were as possible. To this end, he employs extensive use of recreation and reenactments. In fact, almost the entire film consists of such material. The real people provide voiceover while actors play out the circumstances around Mr. Hands’ death.

This method allows Hands’ two fellow zoos, “H” and “The Happy Horseman” to participate in the story while maintaining anonymity, and provides a Brechtian cushion between us and the film. We know that we are watching a recreation, so we can judge what has been done based on what has been done, and not on the superficial details of a man sitting in front of us for an interview. Were we to see the real H before us, even with a pixellated face, we would likely be too occupied thinking about his sexual habits to think about him as a person. In retrospect, Zoo reads as something of a prototype of what Clio Barnard would later do with The Arbor.

What happens when you strip away the superficial? You are left with humanity. And while your gut instinct is perhaps to condemn these people as freaks or deviants, they are still human. I doubt the film will budge you even slightly towards coming around to their point of view, or even being able to understand their paraphilia, but it will confront you with the fact of their existence. And that’s a stronger confrontation than you may initially think, since our societal instinct is to bury them in the furthest recesses of our minds. That’s the nature of a taboo, after all.

But, to quote Magnolia, zoophilia “happens. This is something that happens.” And the movie drags you kicking and screaming in front of it. While most of the film refers to the subject only in the coded phraseology or vague allusions of its characters, one central sequence is graphic and explicit while at the same time still quite discreet. We watch state investigators watching one of Mr. Hands’ “home movies.” And while the investigators are actors in a recreation, the video they see is the real deal. We catch only glimpses of the tape, while hearing the audio much more clearly. You see barely anything at all, but it’s enough. This level of remove between us and the act, a reenactment of a viewing of a tape of it, is so far that we can feel “safe.” And yet just that exposure will still make you feel dirty. Because it’s a taboo.

But no issue was ever resolved by ignoring it. We come to some kind of understanding, and work towards a stronger-loving world, by talking about these things. No subject should be off-limits. And as hard as it is to acknowledge, there might be a debate to hold over bestiality’s morality. Zoo contributes to the conversation with a resolute call for empathy. It’s delicate in all the right places and brusque in all the others. It’s frankly a brilliant film, and one of the few that I can honestly say is almost entirely unique in its topic. If you are brave enough, then you should find it as soon as you can.

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Dan Schindel loves movies more than you do.

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