A look beneath the surface splendor of 2007's most haunting documentaries
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. The viewer, as if the film's friend, can fill in gaps and mentally expand on the subjects' pointed statements.
There are moments in Zoo when harshness or avidness peeks through the mostly even tones of the voices, such as when a local senator declares that animals like children cannot consent to sex with men, but this is diffused by quiescent visuals, the absence of a physical presence, and a refusal to linger on or delve further into these objections. Similarly, Manufactured Landscapes skirts a direct and impassioned address of the offense against humans and nature that it depicts and relies more on the awe of imagery and fastidiously selected and placed bits of commentary. Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work the film extends and considers, explains that he wants his daunting photographs of dramatically botched landscapes to be left to viewers' interpretation. The role of the artist is to competently capture and present in a way that encourages discourse rather than to project a prefabricated message or force a critique.
In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal's vision is consistent with Burtynsky's. Her video footage of devastation such as that associated with the Three Gorges Dam and gargantuan mounds of e-waste, both in China, is accompanied by Burtynsky's narration, which contains a rather discreet lament but foregrounds a more ambiguous combination of fact and feeling. A notable difference between her product and his is that hers includes the process of his, so in her film we are able to see that he choreographs the laborers in his photographs. Toward the beginning, he directs the innumerable yellow-clad Chinese workers on the premises of a huge factory, seemingly creating symmetry to convey the atmosphere of this immense and oppressive world. Also, Baichwal uses the clever device of pulling out of a site that Burtynsky photographs to reveal his picture hanging in an upscale gallery. In this way the viewer is delivered a powerful juxtaposition a suggestion of the conflicted, perhaps ridiculous, consumption of these ironically beautiful photographs by the privileged people who can only relate to the images through their vague complicity in the dusty and oily oppressions of globalization.
It is mostly the visual style the exquisiteness of the shots that renders the reception of these films frustrating in a rewarding way; it is a frustration of sensibility and of fundamental sentiments about human nature. Burtynsky briefly comments on the symbolism of the gigantic ships under construction that he photographs in Bangladesh ships that are built by teenagers who are up to their necks in oil, working in life-risking conditions, and that are used to deliver the oil he uses for his art and transportation. As in other scenes of the film, he and Baichwal enact a subtly sinister symbolism to nudge viewers toward absorbing the absurdity of development without empathy. One triumph of their work is that they slyly fuse concern for the environment (as in alien landscapes blistered with toxins) with concern for fellow humans (as in foreign factory workers who assemble our consumables). Another gorgeous and telling image is of an endless heap of computer parts of various shapes and sizes. It resembles an art installation of some sort, but as the camera slowly pulls out, a gasp forms in reaction to the heap's vastness, and the viewer learns that the Chinese who rummage for valuable metal are exposing themselves to toxic metals that also make their way into their water.
In Zoo the visual style is more a product of finding a literal representation of the story being recounted and presenting it as a pleasing near-abstraction. 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)