By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: “Zoo,” THINKfilm, 2007]
Only one film at Sundance this year sparked more controversy for its subject matter than what everybody now commonly refers to as “the Dakota Fanning rape movie,” and that’s “Police Beat” director Robinson Devor’s “Zoo.” The documentary is based upon the notorious 2005 Enumclaw, WA farm tragedy in which a community of zoophiles (also known as “zoos,” or people with a sexual fetish for bestiality) videotaped Seattle businessman Kenneth Pinyan (a.k.a. “Mr. Hands”) having sex with a full-size stallion. It wasn’t the first time this shocking subculture had participated in such an outing it was still legal at the time in the state of Washington, but when Pinyan died of internal injuries a few hours later, it became a bona fide media sensation. Devor’s film, strikingly shot as an expressionistic tone poem, attempts to take out the provocation of the story in favor of humanizing those who were publicly persecuted after the scandal erupted.
What was your goal in making this film?
I’m not so sure that I’m a goal-structured filmmaker, but as an independent filmmaker living in Seattle, we keep certain things on our radar because we like to shoot up there where we live. We thought it was an opportunity to do something relevant regionally, but I suppose the goal was to see if we could have any impact in resurrecting the reputation of this man and his friends. As my writer Charles Mudede said, “to see if we could help him rejoin the human community posthumously, and not be viewed as a monster.”
If you present a sensational story with good intentions and restraint, is that enough to do away with its tabloid appeal?
You could look at it in an anthropological sense where you’re an explorer or scientist, and you’re going to a remote part of the world, to a society that does things you don’t particularly understand or comprehend. But you go in there, listen, record and try not to put judgment on it
That’s tough, too. If you editorialize the events, you show an agenda. But if you attempt neutrality, you may not be giving enough ideas for audiences to re-think their preconceptions. What’s the happy medium?
They’re going to get things that they never got close to in the original newspaper articles. These are people who were never given a voice. Nobody ever interviewed them, spoke to them, and nothing was ever printed for a variety of reasons. So, if it could be seen as something skewed [with] a bias towards them, it’s merely because this is an opportunity for them to speak, whereas before they did not have that opportunity.
What did you personally take away from their points of view?
Let me ask you a quick question, because it helps me sometimes if I know what somebody’s reaction was to the film. What was yours?
Personally, I have problems with it. It’s an audacious experiment, but in trying to humanize the “zoos,” I was hoping for more to think about or a richer understanding into their psychologies. Maybe I expected a different kind of movie.
Finding more of a basic commonality, as opposed to going into deep psychological analysis, was preferable to me and Charles. That’s why there’s very little referencing and contextualizing who they are in terms of other societies, historical precedents, et cetera. It’s just not the kind of documentary we wanted to do. We wanted to lay them out in an unadorned manner and let them speak. It was difficult to get them to even speak to us for an hour in a hotel room, so we were working with what we were working with. We felt it was enough to do an interesting film and, you know, why not just let people talk about what they want to talk about?
I do love the cinematography, which has a ruminative quality about it, but there were times when I was thinking less about the people than the images themselves. What do you hope audiences will be contemplating in these quiet moments?
I use myself as an example. I wasn’t exempt from letting my imagination get the most of me when I imagined who these people were and what they may be like. All I can ask is that audiences might just say, “Hey, these guys aren’t drug addicts,” or that some of them might actually be intelligent and sensitive. They’re not too different from us on many levels. Again, a commonality was more interesting than the deviance.
You propose a question about Mr. Hands in the press notes interview: “What does this particular human life tell us about humanity as a whole?” I’d like to ask you that question, not necessarily as a director, but as a critical thinker.
I think that was written for me, Aaron.
Really? It’s a Q&A that was accredited to coming out of your mouth.
It might have been embellished a bit, but I can give it a whirl. I don’t know about humanity as a whole, but I’ve always looked at Mr. Hands as a guy who is kind of the ultimate embodiment of an American citizen. That is, this guy started off believing in the classic paradigm of American life: went to college, got married, had a kid and worked for a Fortune 500 company. As life went on, he decided that those things were not right for him, and finds himself ensnared in a great ethical dilemma about what he was working for and doing to contribute. He expanded and shifted his social and ethical circles by his sexual choices, and his politics shifted radically from right to left. He’s a guy who had it within him to move from one fairly extreme position to another that’s extreme, all within the legal limits of the law, and somebody can do [all that] as an American. That’s an interesting thing, and we’re not posing any morality on it.
How do you think the medium best works in humanizing this subculture?
It’s showing that sex is not a huge part of what these guys are doing. The movie is trying to stay away from the sex. It might have been a boring camaraderie, but it meant something to these guys, and so I think the humanizing is in showing people who are not involved in sex with animals all the time, if not the vast minority of times.
For me, the most interesting thread was the participation of “Coyote” in the reenactments, as he was comfortable enough with his lifestyle to show up on-screen. Did you ever consider pursuing him as a main character since he is alive, able to defend his choices, and offers a human face to the psychologies at play?
The thing is, he wasn’t there the weekend that the event went down, and he was not the person who was persecuted by the law. He was definitely a factor, I like the guy a lot, and I think we could have possibly used him more. You also have to understand, this is a project that we started in the summer, our financing wasn’t in place until late October or November, we finished shooting at the end of November, and got 60 minutes to Sundance that we’d edited for two weeks. Suddenly, we thought ThinkFilm wasn’t even going to submit it, and the next thing you know, it got in. I’m proud of the work that everybody did on it to get it into the shape it is today. If I had more time, would I have wanted to explore my relationships with these men more? Absolutely. But it is what it is.
You interview Michael Minard, who plays “Cop #1” in the re-enactments. Why did you include only his personal observations, and not the other actors?
We filmed a lot of our actors talking about incidents in their lives that we thought would be impacting after the journey to the barn where they’re about to have sex with horses, and the audience is sitting back, thinking these are irredeemable characters, feeling superior and looking down on them the idea was to have our actors talking about the injustices and painful experiences they encountered in the human world, human-on-human interaction. One had been sexually abused, and another guy was possibly involved in a murder. We wanted to remind people as a lever to maneuver some hypocritical thinking we were anticipating. So we did all these interviews, and really, Michael Minard just told this story I thought was very interesting because he said something that I was unable to say in a straightforward manner. That is, “Look, forget about your position on horse sex. This is a guy who died. He had people who loved and missed him.” One might think that that is a trite sentiment, but we had to push the meter aesthetically to balance the luridness of the subject.
Did you feel the need to cover your own ass based upon how people might judge your point of view?
Not at all. I was very confident in what we were doing. It was the last thing we filmed, as a matter of fact. After we were in the editing suite, it became a substitute for something we couldn’t film: we were going to get people’s reactions throughout Seattle, to show how people were laughing it off and taking moral stances. But that felt bogus to us, so we tried a different approach. We thought we would give the actors a chance to speak and just talk about their lives, to see what we could cook up.
I’m sure you’ve heard it all since Sundance. What was the most outlandish, knee-jerk reaction towards the film you know of?
I’ve heard nothing but great things. There have been things written on blogs and far-right sites who think the film is ridiculous. I do know that there was a guy in our city that attacked me on television before I even made the film, which is kind of an honor; he gave me some award or something for being an ass. That was a bit pre-judgmental. Certain people in our city, even people within the film community, felt it was a subject that should not be addressed. To pass judgment on an artist who is trying to explore things in a way that a journalist or scientist can approach something is ridiculous. I’m sure I’ve been attacked here and there for all sorts of things. I can’t remember anything exact, and why would I repeat it? [laughs]
“Zoo” opens April 25th in New York (official site).