I definitely didn’t plan for it to happen this way, but in a 12-hour span I ran the gauntlet through two of the most chilling, disquieting, and provocative documentaries I’ve ever seen. The residual effect of one kept me awake for hours, even after an already exhausting day of film going, and the other kicked off the next morning by threatening to cast a looming, ominous shadow over the rest of the fest. Neither was among the best films I saw during the festival, but, like it or not, they are probably the two I’ll still be thinking about for months after the others have blurred together and faded.
Lake of Fire (dir. Tony Kaye)
Let’s take the second, and the least controversial of these films first. (Oh the irony! Wait for it) Tony Kaye’s huge, sprawling, overambitious and exhausting Lake of Fire wants to be regarded as the most comprehensive, unflinching documentary about the abortion debate ever made, and who am I to say it doesn’t succeed at just that?
Lake of Fire
Fifteen years in the making, shot entirely in black and white (which, of course, is actually shades of gray, appropriately enough) and clocking in at a burly 150 minutes (edited down from gawd knows how many hours of footage), Kaye’s encyclopedic treatment tries to address all angles and all aspects of the abortion debate equally, but ultimately the film gives in to the temptation to focus primarily on the ever escalating extremism of the religious right in mobilizing against abortion. And, truth be told, with their outrageous proclamations and protests, wild-eyed zealotry and borderline sociopathic behavior, they do make for better cinema. You might be able to accuse Kaye of giving away his own sympathies here, but he’s more interested in letting them hang themselves with their own words and actions rather than shooting fish in a barrel.
Lake of Fire is definitely not for the squeamish nor for the faint of heart. Be warned, this is an extremely graphic film. Even those knowing what they are getting into when the lights go down will be shocked (yes, I’m raising my hand, now). The police photos of victims of abortion clinic violence are only the tip of the iceberg. Kaye also unleashes Christian prolife infomercial films that depict in chilling and nauseating detail the “horrors” of abortion.
But he balances these bits of gory religious “cinema” with two very matter of fact and unflinching walks through an entire abortion procedure with two different women, one in the middle of the film, and one as the final (and probably most important) passage. These are graphic not just in their depiction of the medical procedure itself, but in the very harrowing and raw emotional fallout these women experience in its wake, no matter their resolve going in.
It’s a stark and humane reminder to both sides of the ideological divide that central to this ceaseless debate that there are actual human beings caught in the middle, and addressing the issues on purely categorical lines is perhaps the most harmful thing that can be done, regardless of which side of the divide you stand on.
Zoo (dir. Robinson Dover)
I doubt the subject matter of Zoo will be quite so polarizing. In fact, I’m guessing a good 99.9999999 percent of people you poll will have a very similar reaction if you broach the particulars of this most taboo of taboos to them, and that reaction will be a mixture of first utter astonishment, then incredulous laughter, and ultimately horrified revulsion. Gentle readers, this is your warning: turn back now, you faint of heart and / or stomach.
I don’t think Robinson Devor is trying to construct a defense of what is, essentially, an indefensible and unfathomable sexual act. A pseudo-documentary constructed out of audio interviews with men involved in the case who didn’t want to be shown on film (and thus are portrayed on screen by actors), the film is an attempt to understand what most would want to dismiss either as a sensational outrage and at worst an utter abomination against man, nature, and God. By the end of the film, horse trainer / rescuer Jenny Edwards admits “I don’t know how I feel about [this case], but I’m right on the edge of being able to understand it”.
Devor would perhaps like his film about this extraordinary case to do the same for us. That’s a tall order, especially given the rather tragic outcome, where a man bled to death internally from a ruptured colon, which had been brought about by having sex with a horse. Or, rather, the horse having sex with him.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Zoo is about the notorious case of one Kenneth Pinyan, who was dropped off at an emergency room in a Seattle suburb in the middle of the night in July of 2005. As the details surrounding his injuries started to leak out, it emerged he was a member of a group that regularly met to engage in bestiality.
Except they don’t want to be saddled by that pejorative term, preferring “zoophile”, instead (which they shorten, and call themselves “zoos”—hence the title). This group claims that their acts with the horses are born out of real and deep love. At first I respected Devor for refusing to make his film tawdry, exploitive, or sensational, to try treat this subject with a modicum of respect, and to make some attempt at understanding the psychological urges of these men over and above their sexual aberrations.
But in attempting all this Devor may have gone too far in the opposite direction. Zoo is indeed a very well constructed film. Beautifully filmed and scored, it is visually and aurally poetic, shot in twilit blues and whites, long shots of shadowy interiors and bucolic farmsteads. It’s all a bit much, really, and does nothing but distract from the matter at hand, which Dover never tackles head on. He never asks the hard questions, he never challenges his interviewees, he never seems to know what point he wants to make.
But as frustrated as I was while watching Zoo, I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards, more for what was left out, what wasn’t included, than what it revealed. And I realized that Devor’s almost apologia really wasn’t one—he was simply opening the door, shocking us up front and then giving us 80 minutes of calm contemplative space that would spill out after the movie was over. He was daring us to take a good, hard look at our own moral make-up, forcing us to address explicitly just where and why boundaries must be drawn. It’s a fantastic sleight of hand, if this was indeed the intention, and this, more than the graphic details of the case, are what kept me up for hours thinking about Zoo.