Zoo is a documentary on an infamous incident in Enumclaw, WA where a Boeing engineer died from a perforated sigmoid colon after having intercourse with a horse. With that out of the way, feel free to make all the jokes you need to. When you’re ready, we’ll just continue. (Rest assured, I’m making my own jokes, too. I mean, really, it’s kind of hard not to. The Mr. Ed vein alone is particularly flush with possibilities.)
But the film itself is actually very staid and objective about it. Devor (and co-writer Charles Mudede from the Stranger, Seattle’s alt. weekly) understand the wriggling, sniggering nature of the subject and treat it as seriously and gingerly as they can (though, there are many moments of unintentional humor on the part of the interviewees, as evidenced by the audience’s occasional snickering… which I occasionally happened to be a part of). One of the more powerful segments is when one of the re-enactment actors is interviewed, telling of the time he watched a 7-year-old drowning victim die in his arms, using that sad event to remind the viewer that no matter what the circumstances were, a human being died, albeit apparently relatively painlessly (Mr. Hands — the victim’s nom de amour — didn’t realize he was hemorrhaging until too late) in a relatively unpleasant way. This comes at the approximate halfway point of the film; I believe it’s a way to let the audience have their juvenile laughs and get it out of their system, then ease them into the serious viewpoint the subject requires.
Due to the subject matter, many of the, ahem, experts on the subject refused to appear in the documentary, allowing only their voices to be heard, and so, in a way, Zoo is more or less a radio program. In fact — the feel of the show reminded me much of Showtime’s adaptation of Ira Glass‘ This American Life, just a more… disturbed entry. Since Devor wasn’t married to the standard documentary visual form of shaky camera work capturing events as they happen, he was able to get some outstandingly beautiful images with his cinematographer Sean Kirby. It IS a gorgeous film to watch, and the pacing is very well done — it’s slow and dreamlike, but it never seems to lag.
The film isn’t perfect, however. In a way, it seems too lightweight for the subject. The film tries to examine zoophilia in general, though most of the information is on the tragic case of Mr. Hands. Perhaps a wider net would have been more illuminating, though, given that most people wouldn’t want to be outed as “zoo” (what the zoophiles call themselves), perhaps that was the desired tack Devor and Mudede wanted to take but found themselves thwarted.
Another flaw with the film is, oddly enough, one of its strengths — its extreme objectivity. Zoo never gets into the moral question of bestiality. A quick clip from some of the radio coverage on the case mentions the standard “Well, if animals can’t consent, what about in this case where the horse HAD to consent to initiate the intercourse in this way?” trope that came out over and over in this case (and, seems to rear its head in conversations on bestiality in general) — and at the very end of the film, the woman who rescued the horses said that the case caused her to examine zoophilia online, and that she was definitely conflicted on the way the zoos (non-euphemistically) love their animals; often receiving outstanding care, grooming and (platonic) affection. Unfortunately, the film ends there, immediately, leaving nothing answered on that front. The film agrees that Mr. Hands’ death was unfortunate and deeply strange, but remains silent on the ethics of his mental state and, well, love (as he was intending to buy the horse had he not died) he had for the creature. In that sense, the film feels unfinished — that may have been the intent, to raise questions, though very little is given to help those questions be educated ones. Mr. Hands and H (the ranch hand) were obviously strange but were they wrong or evil? H claims that he wasn’t. Other people say he was. But no one clarifies as to why. To outright answer that question, I believe, would be a mistake, though Zoo seems to merely go “muhunnno” while shrugging its shoulders and quickly changing the subject — which is a mistake as well. Zoo is beautiful and well-made, which does make it highly recommended, but don’t expect to know a whole lot more than when you went in.