It’s no coincidence that Zoo contains the most on-screen video and still photograph cameras of any of the director’s 15 films I’ve had the pleasure of screening – clear stand-ins for the directorial presence even if they function in a largely different manner from Wiseman’s own apparatus – as well as the most disturbing series of surgeries and naked carnivorism. (The filmmaker’s animal-themed films tend to be the bloodiest). In an early sequence, an on-screen camera tracks along with a group of lions as they move across their zoological enclosure, while one crew member holds up a piece of flora in front of the lens, manipulating the image into suggesting that the shoot took place in the animals’ native habitat, as opposed to a “fake” setting of captivity. By showing us the falsehood inherent in this act of image-creation, Wiseman calls upon the viewer to question the director’s own choice of material. While his approach obviously aims for a less altered view of “reality”, it’s clear that any endeavor that strives toward a sense of the objective is no less shaped by a selective process and by authorial prejudices, even if Wiseman’s subjects never call attention to the camera’s presence. (This last fact always strikes me as vaguely unsettling when watching his films.)
In one sense, Wiseman’s 16mm camera operates in similar fashion to the various film crews and tourist photo shoots that he captures on screen. But what separates his method is the access he allows to far more privileged moments of the organization's inner workings, offering a larger context for his images and, with it, a definite authorial perspective. This point of view places the audience in an uncomfortable position in relation to the animals (which it’s likely to regard with the same voyeuristic urge as the zoo’s visitors), the visitors themselves (who tend to come off somewhat less than flatteringly) and the behind-the-scenes activities performed by the zoo’s staff. Though clearly enamored of the animals they tend to, these workers nonetheless engage in acts that to the viewer unaccustomed to such operations can only register as unnecessarily brutal.
These squirm inducing sequences comprise a good portion of the film’s running time: In one heartwrenching scene, a rhino gives birth to a still-born child, the mother registering a look of sad resignation (in so far as it’s possible to project human emotion onto an animal’s face) as she regards her deceased offspring. Later, that dead animal is chopped up into pieces, some to be sent to scientific research centers, the rest discarded in an incinerator. A lizard is fed a meal of dead birds; when he’s finished, a speck of plumage clings cruelly to the corner of his mouth. A wolf is castrated while the doctors deadpan lines like “out they come”. After a tour guide explains to visitors that most offspring at the zoo are raised by the mothers, we watch workers steal a crocodile’s newly hatched eggs for observation.
While part of this brutality is inherent in the feeding process, it seems all the more pitiless for being performed in an artificial manner necessitated by the animals’ removal from their native environments. Some of the other acts can be justified as furthering the aims of science (the egg removal) or, more dubiously, as being in the general interest of “education”, a vague term that a tour guide vaguely throws around. It’s clear, however, that the real purpose of the zoo is to indulge the voyeurism of its paying customers, a voyeurism in which Wiseman implicates both himself and the viewer by showing us shots of animals that are undeniably striking, even if he later undercuts our visual pleasure by exposing the bluntly executed processes behind the operation.
Two late sequences give us some of the wider context of that operation, starting with a board meeting in which the zoo’s administrators discuss the negotiations involved in obtaining komodo dragons for their menagerie. Since they have to deal with the Indonesian government (then run by the U.S.-supported military dictator and genocidist Suharto), discussions lead to tricky economic, as well as moral, questions. This sole look at the administrative process of the institution (less than we’ve come to expect from such near contemporaneous Wiseman films as Near Death and Central Park), is particularly telling: After our immersion in day-to-day process, we’re finally granted a glimpse at the wider decision-making that allows for the zoo’s continued operation. The price of that continued operation is further emphasized in the film’s final sequence, a gala benefit, crudely entitled “Feast with the Beasts”. Under a full moon, VIPS dressed in black-tie cavort with elephants and dine on cooked meat that in the dim light reminds one of the flesh burning in the incinerator that reappears like a bad conscience throughout the course of the film. While the chefs at the feast cook up fancy steaks, the daily workers perform a far less glamorous act of flesh-frying. These two acts – fund-raising and disposal of the dead – represent the twin poles of activities necessary to the maintenance of the institution. But whether or not that institution deserves this upkeep is a question that Wiseman’s film continually, fascinatingly leaves open to interrogation.