The sex scene in the documentary Zoo, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance film festival, lasts less than 10 seconds. The grainy footage follows lush shots of nature set to moody music and a thoughtful voiceover discussion of the nature of love. Drinks are mixed. Stories are shared. Both parties appear to consent. The fleeting seconds would seem unlikely to raise an eyebrow among the liberal audience of film lovers who rush to Sundance each year in search of edgy, independent fare. The thing is, the scene stars a man and a horse.
Unsettling precisely because it is more atmospheric than graphic, more romantic than journalistic, Zoo examines the culture of zoophiles, people with an erotic attraction to animals. Seattle filmmaker Robinson Devor tells the true story of "Mr. Hands," a 45-year-old man who died shortly after being anonymously dropped at an emergency room in rural Washington in 2005. Police investigating the case followed clues to a nearby horse farm, where they found buckets of videos of the man and others having sex with Arabian stallions. Mr. Hands' cause of death was a perforated colon. Because bestiality wasn't illegal in Washington State at the time, no charges were filed, but the scandal made national news.
Via reenactments with actors and voiceover interviews with the dead man's zoophile friends, Devor picks up where the news stories left off. "A lot of people advised us not to do the film, artistically and from a business standpoint," says Devor, whose last movie, Police Beat, was a little-seen but critically lauded film in Sundance's 2005 dramatic competition. "But filmmakers investigate all sorts of subcultures and individuals who are clearly more evil than these."
Maybe so, but Zoo, which has notes of Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, caused festival goers to launch into heated debates on the shuttle buses and in the cafes of Park City about such unlikely subjects as whether a stallion can actually give consent and precisely how he might do so. Taxi drivers in town asked their passengers, "Have you seen the horse sex movie?" At a Q&A following one screening, the Seattle actor who plays Mr. Hands, John Paulsen, who is a priest, admitted that after hearing he had gotten the role, he wasn't quite sure he wanted it.
Devor studiously avoids judging the men in his film, depicting them as regular guys who hold down regular jobs and attend regular parties. No talking heads appear on camera to explain the psychological sources of zoophilia. The closest thing Zoo has to a moral guide is the woman charged with finding a new home for the dead man's horse, and even she, by the end, is compassionate. "Michael Moore's first movie was about a group of Nazis and they were having a picnic," says Devor. "The left was very p----- off at him because he didn't clearly say, 'This is bad.' I don't think art is supposed to give messages. It can be enigmatic and push buttons."
Asked who his audience might be when Zoo is released by ThinkFilm later this year, Devor rattles off an eclectic group: "Crazy art house lovers. 18- to 24-year-old guys. Conservatives who would condemn it." OK, so it's not the same crowd who will be racing the see Shrek the Third, but, as a friend of Devor's told him, 'Finally you made a commercial movie.'" Those curious about zoophilia may be disappointed by the, er, logistical questions that Zoo fails answer. But it won't be hard to find people curious about zoophila. You did read this far, didn't you?