Zoo: film teeters gingerly around its subject and suffers for that

Robinson Devor, “Zoo” (2007)

Based on the case of a Boeing employee who died from a perforated colon while being anally penetrated by a horse in Enumclaw, a town in rural Washington state, “Zoo” (the term is short for zoophilia, the sexual love of animals) is a brave attempt to address a highly controversial and polarising issue in a dispassionate way that neither condemns nor sympathises with the people involved in bestiality. The film recreates the events leading up to the man’s death and its aftermath in a way that’s part documentary / part drama with re-enactments of scenes and emphasising a soft, dream-like mood with delicately muted, wafting music. Director Devor uses four narrators, talking to an unseen listener, to retell the events from the point of view of the people who knew the man, referred to in the film as “Mr Hands”, and this approach thrusts (um) the viewer right into the twilight world of zoophiles: how they found each other through Internet contacts, how they organised their tryst and their reactions when the man was injured and when their secret activites became known to the outside world.

The film has the air of a noir mystery: the majority of scenes are filmed in shadow, at night or in dark colours with blue being predominant. The story unfolds slowly and elliptically and anyone who is unaware in advance as to what the film is about may be puzzled at the indirect way “Zoo” tiptoes around the subject until near half-way when a news report drops its headline in deadpan style. The pace is very steady, perhaps too steady and slow, and the film often dwells on several still camera shots which look deliberately staged as if for static display purposes. Close-ups and landscapes often look very abstract with washes of blue across a background; an orchard looks like a misty fairyland beneath a light coating of rain. The mood is even and quite blank until a scene in which police investigators viewing a DVD recording appears; the police react with horror and shock watching the act of buggery and only then do viewers feel something creepy crawl up their spines.

For all its delicacy, “Zoo” gives the impression of something much bigger than its subject matter struggling to make itself seen and heard: the zoophiles give the impression of wanting companionship, a sense of belonging, a need to share something special that gives meaning to their lives, and thinking they have found it. They seek a utopia in which everyone is equal and no-one is judged by how much money s/he earns or how educated s/he is. The places in rural Washington where many of them live look impoverished and some zoophiles may well be drifters or marginalised people barely managing to make a living and survive. (Difficult to tell as many scenes are recreations of actual events with actors playing the zoophiles.) If the film had directly addressed the need of the zoophiles for meaning, for companionship, it might have been able to gain more co-operation from the people involved; as it is, the level of co-operation it got is very restricted. The dead man’s family refused to be interviewed for the film which is a pity as the wife and child might have presented him as more well-rounded than he appears in “Zoo”.

The film also suffers from subjectivity and could have done with a more objective view of its subject. Interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists on zoophilia and perhaps other conditions such as lycanthropy (identifying oneself as an animal rather than as a human) might have shed light on why some people are sexually attracted to animals and to some kinds of animals in particular. The goals of the project would still be met: the issue would not be sensationalised and viewers might come away with a greater understanding of zoophilia and other bizarre philias. Instead the film can only concentrate on the horse-trainer, Jenny Edwards, who took charge of the horses after the incident became public: she admits that after having followed the case in its detail and ordering a horse gelded (gee, why punish the horse for that? – it’s reminiscent of what people did in mediaeval times, when animals involved in bestiality were put on trial and given the same sentence as the perpetators), that she’s “on the edge” of understanding the zoophiles’ obsession. It appears also that the director and film-crew were as much in the dark as Edwards was while making the film; even after its completion, the film-makers still were scratching their heads trying to make sense of what they’d done. Not a good portent for a film.

Yes, zoophilia is a difficult subject to talk about, let alone film, without making it look disgusting, degraded or ridiculous and pathetic. “Zoo” tries hard not to take one side or the other but with a subject like this, the attempt to be “balanced” is a tough act indeed to pull off. Some viewers will be irate that the film advocates no position at all, as if it’s the film-makers’ duty to tell them what they must believe. I think though that to achieve the “balance” that “Zoo” strives for, the film-makers should have pulled back from their subjects and taken a more generalised view of the issue of zoophilia; the police officers, the courts, psychologists and medical staff who dealt with the dead man and his friends should have been consulted for their opinions about zoophilia.

Until Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) agrees to make a film version of “Equus” – he has already done the stage play – “Zoo” remains the only film to seriously tackle a difficult subject minefield.

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