"Zoo" | Can you believe they made a movie about the Enumclaw incident?
The tagline for Stanley Kubrick's film version of "Lolita" playfully read, "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita? " One might be tempted...
Special to The Seattle Times
The tagline for Stanley Kubrick's film version of "Lolita" playfully read, "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" One might be tempted to make light of Seattle filmmaker Robinson Devor's daring new film, "Zoo," with a similar slogan. But that would send the wrong message, according to the film's distributor.
"Zoo," which will screen in the documentary competition of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, next week, is based on a news story about a Northwest man's infamously fatal sexual encounter with a horse. But it "is in no way light or anecdotal," said Mark Urman of THINKfilms, the New York company that will distribute the movie. "If it were done salaciously or sniggering, it would not only be a disservice to the film but an enormous turn off. ['Zoo'] is discreet with respect to how it communicates. It is a very serious film." Perhaps as a way to emphasize this tone, Devor and his distributors changed the film's title from "In the Forest There is Every Kind of Bird" to the more simple, yet equally indecipherable "Zoo."
When Urman first heard of Devor's project, he did as many had done in 2005 when the incident happened on a farm in Enumclaw — turned to the Internet for educational details. Learning about the event "elicited a range of responses" from his staff, "running the gamut from horror, head-scratching, giggles — that sort of 'excuse-me?' factor. Such things don't cross your mind until you hear about them. Our immediate next step was to watch the film."
Urman knew of Devor by way of his first two films — "The Woman Chaser" and "Police Beat" — both filmed in Seattle, the latter based on articles printed in Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger, written by "Zoo" scribe Charles Mudede.
Based on "a tiny bit of footage" Urman saw of "Zoo," he decided to buy the film, also submitting clips to Sundance's programmers. "They went nuts for what they saw," he said.
Urman also credits Devor's reputation as a two-time Sundance director with getting into this year's festival. His documentary is one of 16 selected for competition out of 856 submitted. While Devor's résumé may facilitate getting into Sundance, it's still an occupation of innovation as far as getting a picture funded and filmed. A local Craigslist posting, posted (presumably by Devor) last summer, read "Two time Sundance film director seeking house-sitting gig in exchange for small fee."
It is impossible to Google Devor's name without being informed by many sources that he was named as Variety's "10 Directors to Watch" in 2000, praise based on his debut feature, "The Woman Chaser," acclaimed mostly for its visual style. It is Devor's filmic talent that made the project so attractive to Urman.
Sundance Film Festival: Thursday-Jan. 28 in Park City, Utah. For info: http://festival.sundance.org/2007/
"It is not tabloid, it is an aestheticizing approach. That eliminated the 'ick' factor and made it a film, not the sort of thing you'd see on reality-based television." Devor's cinematic approach makes "Zoo" the kind of film Urman thinks is worth distributing nationally as opposed to having it air on late-night HBO.
Urman likens "Zoo" to work by America's arguably most famous documentarian Errol Morris, specifically "The Thin Blue Line" and "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," which Urman also distributed. Like "The Thin Blue Line," Urman argues, "Zoo" uses re-enactments as a visual device to explore "an aspect of human nature. It's not a specific story of freakish behavior but a universal look at what goes on behind the façade of everyday, quotidian, normal American middle-class life. It is not salacious."
Not everyone sees the film in the same light. Seattle TV commentator Ken Schram called Devor "something of a horse's ass" in August 2006, saying the mere idea of making a film about the incident made him queasy. A blogger named David Yeagley denounced the film as promoting a "perversion of Judeo-Christian morals."
Urman sees it as his responsibility to "give people the right set of eyes" and "the proper preparation" before hearing about or seeing Devor's unavoidably controversial film. Rather than dwell on the perverse act, Urman centers his discussions about the movie on what he perceives is its universalism. While the protagonist "seems like an oddball at the outset of the movie," Devor seeks to "reveal untold amounts of information about the human capacity to do the most awful things, chart[ing] the journey of this unhappily married man who began to explore sexual alternatives, as so many do. Instead of turning back to the light, he went deeper and deeper until he got trapped in the darkness, and it had fatal ramifications."
In an industry where public test screenings are the norm, it is noteworthy that Urman bought "Zoo" without first seeing an audience's reaction. He doesn't think he'd be very good at his job if he waited for the verdict of focus groups. "We know what we're looking for, what we can sell. Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes. There's a plethora of them, an epidemic. The choices are innumerable. If something isn't really a cut above or attention-getting," Urman knows it won't be worth his, or the public's, time.
"We did it with 'Murderball,' " Urman says of preemptive buying. "We fully financed it based on moments of footage. It's better to be in the driver's seat. To see it through my eyes instead of uninformed, uninitiated eyes. And the earlier I get to influence public perception, the better."
A blurb about "Zoo" in the Sundance film catalogue describes the film as testing thresholds, a word that Urman found fitting. "Pursuing pleasure or thrills or highs, it becomes an exercise in thresholds. You do it once and you want to do it more, even in the most benign pursuits."
To those who immediately dismiss the film on moral grounds, Urman wishes to remind them of the human factor. "They are still people. They are still us, even if we are looking through a distorting mirror. Somebody who does everything to an extreme, an excess, and then to death. It's sad."
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