Director: Robinson Devor,
Watched on: DVD,
Zoo is based on the infamous Enumclaw horse sex case of July, 2005, where a man died in the hospital from a perforated colon after he was, um, penetrated by a stallion. The movie combines voice-over interviews with actors and staged scenes. I admire films that push the boundaries between documentary and fiction; especially docs that can tell a story or enhance the reality of it subject matter by avoiding the usual menu of talking heads, news footage, and blandly shot and edited digital video. Too many documentaries these days are simply not worth the time it takes to watch them. It is much more efficient, and usually more enlightening, to simply read the newspaper articles they are based on.
Zoo is also ripped from the headlines, but director Robinson Devor and co-writer Charles Mudede, Northwest filmmakers, avoid direct storytelling and even journalism in this film, which amounts to a highly atmospheric but narratively inert attempt at explaining the world of zoophiles, or zoos, men who like to have sex with horses.
I have nothing but praise for director of photography Sean Kirby, editor Joel Shapiro, and composer Paul Mathew Moore. They create a pastoral Eden by day and a slightly menacing world of shadowy men by night, with the ghostly presence of Mt. Rainier hovering in the background. Their work is beautiful and often mesmerizing. But Devor and Mudede have used these elements to craft a picture that is artistically and emotionally remote. They’ve avoided, thankfully, showing actual scenes of horse-on-man sex, but what they do show is nearly as off-putting.
If their goal was to detail the specifics of the incident that led to the death of the Boeing engineer on that fateful night, or to illuminate the secretive world of the zoos—their motivations, their private conflicts—or to argue for a more tolerant attitude toward alternative sexual pursuits, or even to make a case for the innocent victimization of the horses and the people dedicated to protecting them, then the film has been botched, badly, on all counts.
Zoo is coy about delivering basic information, relying on the voice-overs of actors and actual participants in the horse sex incident, commenting elliptically on the lifestyle of zoos, their hidden desires, and the events that led to the death of one of them, but both they and the filmmakers constantly dance around the elephant in the room: that their predilection towards bestiality is a bizarre sexual obsession practiced by misfits who came to Washington State because, at the time, sex with animals was not against the law.
The men—and they all seem to be men—are creepy and isolated, not too far removed from members of NAMBLA, the man-boy love association, who make poetic and historical allusions to sex with boys or animals being a natural expression of desire that society, in its rigid intolerance, has deemed illegal and perverse. Devor and Mudede aesthetically glorify these perversions with moody night scenes of horses highlighted by blue moonlight, men framed in silhouette against trees and Mt. Rainier, dawn mists laying across meadows, shafts of light through the windows of horse trailers, soft-spoken rationalizations, and tracking shots that go nowhere. They’ve self-invented a mythical world of naked men and horses prancing through fields of daises, expressing ancient desires, far removed from a misunderstanding modern world. But it’s all a sham.
If Devor and Mudede had engaged with the political, moral, and legal aspects of what went down on that summer night two years ago; if they had applied a bit of journalism, or even coherent storytelling, to a serious exploration of the events; if they had made even a stab at empathy, either with the horse or the people who owned the horse or the people who rescued the horse; then they could have made an accessible and quite fascinating film without sacrificing any of the craft or imagination on display here. But instead, with its murky titillations and teasing long shots, Zoo runs ridiculously close to soft core porn.