Both Devor's film and Baichwal's feature a visual poeticism that threatens to detach viewers from the repugnance of reality; but because Zoo is such a cinematic construction, it is particularly susceptible to this numbing effect. So, when it shows a soft-focus, high-lit close-up of blackberries on their thorny vine or a snorting Arabian horse twice framed by square barn windows in the rich blue of evening, it is easy to forget for a moment that the narrators speak of a horse repetitively puncturing his eyes, or of the methods of forced submission.
Because Devor seems to have established a pact with his audience that he will only convey these acts through photo-book semblances of offensiveness, it is especially jolting and seemingly a betrayal when he actually reveals glimpses of bestial sex as the camera pivots around a half circle of flabbergasted witnesses to a video record. Zoo seems to be mocking the audience for wanting this salacious moment, and Devor withholds satiation. He also seems to be playing with the boundaries of effective reveal and withholding and their relationship to juxtaposition. Are these flashes of difficult-to-fathom sex more potent when surrounded by poetic suggestion? Are they a betrayal of the audience, and, if so, are they a meaningful betrayal?
Zoo shares contemplative aerials and slow, smooth pans with Manufactured Landscapes, and these seem integral to the films' peculiar sort of poeticism. Their aerial views are not the informational establishing shots one would expect from straightforward documentaries, but almost ethereal windings through the air. Rural Washington and a pretzel-like Chinese highway system seem softly haunting, both suggestive of a subterranean depravity of sorts that the filmmakers are hinting toward. The calm control of the gliding camera is more apt to lull than unsettle, but this is counterbalanced by its uneasy turns and a voice-over that, in Zoo, ironically tells of the community's innocence and, in Manufactured Landscapes, earnestly considers the film's thematic ill.
Likewise, in Zoo, when the camera languidly pans across peacefully grazing horses in a pasture at night while a horse rescuer describes the profound relationship she has with these beasts, there is a cool, ironic innocence undercutting the otherwise soothing shot. In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal's memorably interminable opening pan across a colossal Chinese factory serves a more direct purpose, but it also creates the same sort of ironic beauty that runs through Devor's movie. The grace present in these shots may glaze over the horror they convey for some viewers at certain moments, but the manner in which this grace galvanizes a sense of horror that reverberates deeply and authentically after viewing is more interesting. *
KEVIN LANGSON'S TOP 10
1. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada)
2. Sicko (Michael Moore, US)
3. The Witnesses (André Téchiné, France)
4. Zoo (Robinson Devor, US)
5. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, US)
6. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US)
7. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/China/Taiwan/France/Austria)
8. Protagonist (Jessica Yu, US)
9. Buddha's Lost Children (Mark Verkerk, Netherlands)
10. The Other Side (Bill Brown, US)