Year in Film: Beauty lies

A look beneath the surface splendor of 2007's most haunting documentaries

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Unsettling subjects such as fatality by bestiality and landscapes ravaged by industry might conjure coarse, sensationalist images — straightforward visions of debauchery and exploitation. But if you are Robinson Devor or Jennifer Baichwal, they conjure bittersweet visual poetry: Devor's Zoo and Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes are two stunning documentaries released this year that cleverly wield visual beauty to convey an apparent distortion in the human relationship with animals and with the environment, respectively.

Just as there are horror films and melodramas that use intensity and abrasiveness as crutches to make transitory impressions on their audiences, there are well-intentioned social-issue documentaries that amplify atrocity in order to shock viewers into caring. Zoo and Manufactured Landscapes are refreshing and poignant for countering this impulse. They are from the school of subtlety — not subtlety of content, but of form.

Zoo's opening shot seems to encapsulate its spirit of patient, elegant reveal. A prick of blue light amid blackness slowly expands and comes into focus as the blue-washed tunnel of a mine where the film's first narrator — Coyote, a paramedic — worked before he made his way to Washington. It is a scene that contains a discomfort vague enough to be missed, as if we are gradually homing in on a world that will prove unpleasant. The mine's elongated confinement also portends the halls of the grand stable where mischief occurs later in the film. Concomitantly, the music begins as a delicate support and escalates into a complex, slightly unnerving amalgamation of sounds, including those of a computer modem. The use of a computer's noises of labor is meaningful because it prerelates to one zoophile's explanation of how important the Internet was to the solidification of the group that is the film's focus.

It is partially Zoo's structure that lends it an air of elegant subtlety. There is a linear story being told, from the online discovery to the convergence in Washington to the main event and its aftermath, but within that conventional structure is a fluid, relaxed traveling between narrators that has a less obvious logic. This befits the visual style, which is a poetic approximation of events rather than a recording of actuality. Bits of perspective from the various players cohere with a pacing and an order that feel carefully calculated to mimic the way in which uncertainty is slowly dispelled and truth, while withholding promises, comes into focus, fragment by irregular fragment.

Zoo glides between members of the zoophile group and a horse rescuer, a radio show host, and a politician, who all — in varying manners — offer commentary confronting the offensiveness of the men's behavior. The film's lightness is largely a result of its minimal contextualization and identification of location and character, as well as its refusal of a rigidly organized rise to climax. When the subjects of its investigation appear in the film at all, it is in an indirect manner. Actors fill in for the condemned men, liquidly guiding viewers through events, but faces are unimportant. Voices, which exude a certain ease even when confidence gives way to defensiveness or befuddlement, are the integral thread in the film's subjectivity. Zoo features the voices of H and the Happy Horseman, two participants on the ranch, and does an exquisite job of extracting bits of anecdote and emotional response that give a full account with very little. There is a wise reticence here, like a conversation between lifelong friends who speak uninhibitedly but with the understanding that all need not be vocalized.

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