PRINT May 2007



“BUT HOW EXACTLY did they do it?” more than a few people asked after seeing, or just hearing about, Robinson Devor’s Zoo, which premiered in the documentary competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and just opened in New York theaters. It seemed to me then (and still does, now that I’ve seen Zoo several times) that if one is going to make a film based on a true story of a man who was fucked to death by a horse, one is obliged at some point to confront, if not in photographic images then at least in words or diagrams, the nuts and bolts of what takes place in the copulation of an average-size guy and an Arabian stallion many times his weight and considerably taller, not to mention the length of—well, you know. One must also consider the very real—not merely demagogic—social, psychological, and ethical questions bestiality poses. Devor and co-screenwriter Charles Mudede, however, had other priorities, and the film that resulted from their choices is achingly beautiful and rather sad but so limited in scope as to cause viewers to fall back on their preconceptions, however narrow or inchoate.

Zoo contemplates the event known in the press as “The Enumclaw Horse Sex Incident” largely from the point of view of a cluster of zoophiles who regularly met at a horse farm outside Enumclaw, a rural town in the foothills of Washington’s Mount Rainer, for the purpose of having sex with the occupants of its stable. When, in July 2005, the man referred to in the film by his online moniker, “Mr. Hands,” died in an emergency room (of acute peritonitis consequent to the perforation of his colon), the press had a field day, treating the story as a grotesque joke, while local politicians exploited the “outrage.” Since there were then no laws against bestiality in Washington State, the surviving zoophiles could not be prosecuted.

Devor and Mudede’s decision to take a rigorously nonjudgmental approach to this story is most likely a direct reaction to the moralistic tenor of the media spectacle it engendered. The filmmakers tape-recorded interviews with several of the Enumclaw zoophiles, and three of them, “Coyote,” “H,” and “The Happy Horseman,” became, with the deceased Mr. Hands, the film’s central characters. (Coyote even plays himself in Zoo, while actors take on the other men’s parts.) The interviews are frugally meted out in voice-over, accompanying visual reenactments of actual events—the core activity notably elided. (The zoophiles made numerous DVDs and videotapes of their exploits, and at one point in the documentary the camera drifts by a television on which one of their videos is playing, but it is impossible to discern from the out-of-focus image what’s happening, although human grunts and exclamations of “Oh God” are audible.) There may be viewers who are thankful for Devor’s discretion.

The film opens in blackness save for occasional flashes of light from what turn out to be miners’ lamps. We are in a tunnel leading from a mine shaft. It is both a real place—Coyote worked in the mines of Virginia before Internet chat rooms led him west in search of a differently dangerous life—and a metaphor for the dark recesses of the psyche. The impression one has of the film is that it takes place in a kind of half-light. Daytime exteriors are framed by doorways of darkened houses or by the windows of moving vehicles. The lush nightscapes of the Pacific Northwest are rendered in slo-mo, the camera seeming to glide and float, free of gravity, over moonlit fields and forests backed by distant mountains. In some of those fields, horses wander like elegant apparitions. The hypnotic effect of the visuals is reinforced by the repeated glissandos and swells of a full orchestral score. Zoo is nothing if not a mood piece suggesting the intense focus and irrational longings of sexual obsession. (Police Beat [2005], Devor’s previous feature, which is also set in the Pacific Northwest—specifically Seattle—and also co-scripted by Mudede, is a more compelling and complex depiction of the confusion and sexual obsession of a stranger in a strange land. Unfortunately, it has never been distributed or released on DVD.)

Like the zoophiles themselves, the film is unwilling to seriously engage with anything that would break its dreamy, dark magic. First and foremost, that would be a depiction of what exactly happens when the fantasy of having sex with a horse becomes an actuality. In lieu of that intimate engagement of human and animal bodies, we are shown the gelding of a horse that was “saved” from the zoophiles, so that, as the animal rescuer explains, it will never again fall prey to such people. Devor depicts the surgical procedure as a brutalization of a helpless animal and the rescuer’s justification of it as a convoluted version of punishing the victim. But surely the (humane) reason for gelding a horse is to spare it the frustration that results when a stallion is not permitted to breed—not to save it from becoming the victim of human sexual desires. The film, which scoffs at, rather than engages, the animal rescuer’s moral position, repeatedly portrays her as an uptight schoolmarm who has blundered into a phallocentric heaven she can’t possibly understand. “She doesn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to a horse,” says H.

Freed from the undeniable spell the film casts from the first to the last of its seventy-six minutes, I felt a plethora of concerns spring to mind after the end credits rolled, not least of which is the film’s moral relativism with respect to the central ethical question: Is it wrong to have sex with an animal? The zoophiles may call it love—and given the brutalization of animals by humans worldwide, sex with a human is not, by far, the worst thing that could happen to a horse—but to me it is exploitation nonetheless and reinforces the pernicious belief that animals exist for our use. In short, I’m far less concerned with the alienated men with whom Devor wants us to empathize than with the animals that are the object of their forbidden desires.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.