Zoo: Inside the Controversial Documentary

“Zoo,” which opens today in NY and LA, has just been selected as one of the features of the prestigious Directors Fortnight sidebar at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

A provocative inquiry into the mysteries of human desire, “Zoo” is the first foray into narrative non-fiction for indie filmmaker Robinson Devor, whose previous credits, Woman Chaser and Police Beat, were acclaimed for their arresting imagery and their inventive and idiosyncratic characters.

A story literally torn from the headlines, “Zoo” is about a seemingly average man whose secret sexual life led to his shocking death. The Seattle-based director found the basis for “Zoo” just miles way from home, in Enumclaw, Washington, where in July 2005, a 45 year-old Boeing executive named Kenneth Pinyan was anonymously delivered to the hospital emergency room with a perforated colon.

When he later died from massive internal bleeding, the ensuing investigation led police to a nearby farm where they discovered videotapes, including several showing Pinyan having sex with an Arabian stallion. Moralists expressed outrage, animal rights activists conveyed concern, but sniggering humor proliferated, as it often does when a particular situation creates discomfort. The horse sex case became a pornographic joke. What went overlooked was that Kenneth Pinyan, the notorious Mr. Hands, was beyond embarrassment or shame–he was dead.

The tabloid version of Pinyans story was so widespread, especially in Robinson Devors home state, where the high titillation factor made the stories about the case the most-read articles in the Seattle Times history, that Devor decided to take the opposite tack when telling his version of the story.

Last Taboo

Acknowledging that zoophilia is the last taboo, on the boundary of something comprehensible, Devor decided that rather than gawk at the zoos from the outside, he would try to enter their world. Rejecting what he calls the prurient spectacle, Devor recalls that nobody had done an in-depth look at this, that there was no investigative reporting rounding the story out with the psychology involved.

Not a Laughing Matter

There was a lot of laughter surrounding his death and we decided not to laugh but, rather, to approach his death, his life, his dreams, with a sense of gravity, a sense of the heaviness of the human condition. We took it seriously. Trying to find a way to access the inner life of Kenneth Pinyan, who, Devor reminds us, was not an alien, he was a human being, he asked the questions: What did this human do with his only life And, ultimately, what does this particular human life tell us about humanity as a whole

Camera-shy Supporting Cast

With a supporting cast that was camera-shy and a protagonist who was dead, Devor had to devise a narrative mode that was based on indirection. Working with his writing partner, Charles Mudede, a cultural critic for the Seattle alternative weekly, The Stranger (and with whom he previously collaborated on Police Beat), Devor chose a path that avoids all the tropes of reportage; surely the public had had enough of that.

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The team chose a style commensurate to the subject: If zoophilia represents some sort of break with reality, then their aesthetic approach had to represent a similar break with realism.

Using Only Audio

Pinyans fellow zoo participants and witnesses (two of whom were identified from the security camera footage taken at the emergency room drop-off) were tracked down. Devor then gained their trust in order to interview them extensively. However, in most instances, only the audio from these interviews is used. Obliged to be oblique, and forced to avoid the device of talking heads testimony, he opted instead to use a series of impressionistic visualizations, employing actors, to show us what Mr. Hands world was like.

Reliance on Reenactments

Reenactments are a standard device in many kinds of reality-based narratives, from the films of Errol Morris to true crime TV shows. sually, Devor observes, reenactments are nothing more than a visual aid, a way of showing what happened on such and such a night. In short, a way of fleshing out the story. We used them not to show exactly what happened, not to flesh out, but to get to the spirit of what happened. Devors re-enactments are dialogue-free, heavily underscored with trance-like music, and are either heightened or intentionally distorted by non-linear editing and slow-motion.

Work of Visual Poetry

His goal is to help us see and feel the spirit of Mr. Hands story. Elaborating on his stylistic approach he says, we make no distinction between journalism and literature, fiction and non-fiction, the dramatic mode and documentary mode. What counts is this: How does the movie look and feel as a work of visual poetry Does it look ordinary Or, does it look exceptional If it is exceptional, then we are moving in the desired direction.

Influence of Surreal Art Films

Though Devors penchant for poetry, lyricism, and adventurous visuals evoke the films of Errol Morris, as does his use of re-enactments, he doesnt really consider them an influence on “Zoo.” We werent thinking about other documentaries when making ZOO, he says. Instead we were thinking about feature film like The Mirror, Happy Together, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Drawing inspiration from such groundbreaking, visionary storytellers as Tarkovsky and Resnais enabled Devor to create highly impacted and impactful images evoking Pinyans ecstasy and agony with the utmost of tact. As he puts it, I aestheticized the sleaze right out of it!

What’s Tasteful and Distasteful

Regarding Kenneth Pinyan, Mr. Hands, Enumclaw and why he made them the subject of a film he says, it happens, so its part of me. Since Pinyans predilections were doubtless distasteful to most people, Devor had to go to great lengths to avoid making a film that most people would find distasteful.

Natural Setting as Character

Using nature and the splendid natural settings of the area as characters in the story, was another antidote to the sleaze factor and helped Devor create a visual experience that would be the antithesis to the crude videotapes the police found in that bucket. Devor admits to being deeply mesmerized by the Pacific Northwest and very drawn to capture its atmosphere. We wanted to give a real sense of what Seattle feels like, its colors, he says, and Enumclaw s a beautiful town; the barns, the snow-capped volcano, the sharply slanting rays of light. The movies cinematography tries to capture the beauty of this world.

Not a Legal or Animal Cruelty Docu

In a number of spellbinding shots taken in the primeval forest surrounding Enumclaw, the sight of men walking among the trees, intercut with similarly rapturous shots of horses, tell us more about Mr. Hands, and whatever spell he fell under, than any words could convey. Watching these extraordinary, otherworldly images, one may not understand Mr. Hands actions, but one can certainly understand how far away from society and its rules his visits to Enumclaw took him. I thought the marriage of this completely strange mind-set, and the beauty of the natural world could be something interesting, says Devor. Im not in there wrestling with the legal or animal cruelty issues. I count on the natural world pulling my films through.

Illegality of Bestiality

The legal and animal rights issues sorted themselves out as a direct result of this case. Bestiality is now illegal in the state of Washington and the first violator of this new law was prosecuted last year. But Devor is less concerned with the here and now, and more with the timeless and universal. “Zoo” lifts the veil on a hidden America, one inhabited by lost and alienated men who are unable to find satisfaction in the things and institutions that are supposed to make them happy. (It also reveals how the Internet enables them to find one another and band together in ways that were never before possible.)

Neither Condemning nor Condoning

Despite his compassion for such men, and for Kenneth Pinyan in particular, Devor doesnt condemn or condone; he doesnt even engage in issues of right or wrong. Instead, he turns to the larger question how subjective and mutable morality can be, and how human beings, unlike animals, adjust their definitions and codes of acceptable behavior to suit their times.

Our understanding, he says, is that all morals have their origins in humans. They are, in this respect, artificial; morals are not fixed but fluid, they change as humans change. We have no idea how future humans will feel or interpret our own morals and values. In ancient Greece, for example, it was normal for a man to seduce a boy. Indeed, one of the fundamental texts of our civilization, The Symposium is about the love of boys. Our age, of course, finds this sort of relationship unacceptable. We have changed, dramatically. Nothing is final and all truths in the end are human truths.

Docu’s Original Title

Quoting the Roman writer Terence, who said, I consider nothing human alien to me, Robinson Devor reveals that his original title for “Zoo” was In the Forest There is Every Kind of Bird.

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