Bambi's gone psychotic
Denis Cote
The Setup: 
Documentary about animals in captivity.

I had heard about this when it was briefly in theaters, and was eager to see it, but never made it. It was described as being a non-narrative "lyrical" (read: boring) film shot at a Montreal zoo, and to focus on people and animals looking at each other. So it sounded like a gentle, introspective film asking us to quietly reflect on the sameness and differences between humans and animals, which would leave one in a wistful and warmly contemplative mood, like Microcosmos or Winged Migration. Turns out to be a harrowing, hard-to-watch exploration of animals driven insane by captivity.

This is distributed by a company called "Fun Films," although it turns out to be anything but. We open with a close up of a girl's eyes and she looks UP, then down, then UP, then down, and you're left for a while wondering why this should be so compelling. We see more people looking, then looking away, and gradually pull back to reveal that they are drawing, looking at a taxidermied animal, then back to their drawings.

Then we cut to a buffalo, standing in a pen. We stare at him so long, we start to see facial expressions, and though you don't want to anthropomorphize, you start to imagine the buffalo thinking "How did I get here? What am I doing in this place?" Cut to a Llama, standing at the edge of the fence, looking at something in the distance. It paces back, then forth, then looks, then back, then forth, then looks, then back... while you're starting to think "That animal seems completely bewildered," while simultaneously noting that the structure of the shot makes the animal and its' thin legs into a kind of abstract composition. By the time we've seen gorgeously-photographed and impeccably-composed shots of animal horns, or a buffalo hiding in the corner of a holding cell, we can see that there is a real photographer's eye at work here.

Meanwhile, the animals are being held in pens, reacting with bewilderment to loud bangs and industrial noises. They seem shocked and bewildered, unable to process what is happening to them. Around this time I started to think "Is this movie not sweet and wistful at all, but a nasty treatise about animals being driven insane by captivity?" Suspicions mounted as I watched more animals reacting in tense fear to loud offscreen bangs, then suspicions are confirmed as we see that the cause of these bangs in a zebra kept in a small concrete room, throwing itself repeatedly against the iron door. We see the zebra trying to run, but not even having enough space to get going, scrambling back after being repelled by the door--and it was excruciating to watch.

The tone lightens just at the right moment as we see heads of ostriches popping in and out of view, but they are soon revealed to be huddling in a small area to get away from the loud noise of power tools being used in their pen. Then a monkey clinging to a worn stuffed teddy bear as it looks around in terror and bewilderment. Then an exotic bird with one wing attacking itself in a mirror that has been placed in its pen. Then a small antelope walking obsessively in circles as it twitches. Okay, this is becoming unbearable again! Then lions pounding incessantly at the door of their cages. And occasionally we cut to zoo workers as they ignore the loud pounding of the animals, or create their own loud noises by throwing buckets or using power tools without regard to the animals. Just as you're thinking "I'm not sure I can watch this all the way to the end," the screen fades to black. And new horrors await.

We join a taxidermist. He is using a power tool to scrape every last bit of flesh from a bird's skull. It is quite, quite gross, even to those who have watched a fair amount of gruesome horror films. We see him stuff a plastic shell into the carcass, also quite horrific, and by the time we pull back to see the man, he seems like some terrifying doctor death. A series of shots showing the blank eyes of taxidermied animals invites us to compare them with a vivid consciousness we could see in the live animals covered earlier.

At last, the film moves on to animals kept outside in large "natural" environments. They seem a lot more mentally stable than the animals in smaller pens, although the movie shows zebras walking through long lines of cars on a "natural safari," and savannah animals walking listlessly in the cold Canadian rain. The last shot is of an elephant meandering off near the edge of a parking lot, which somehow seems to close it all out appropriately.

Basically, it was excellent. These non-narrative documentaries, that don't tell you what to think or make any overt case, leave your mind free to wander and have your own thoughts. I found the majority of it pretty harrowing and horrifying, but judging from reviews, not everyone saw it that way. It successfully centers on the idea of looking, beginning with the art students' looking at the taxidermied animal, then us looking at real animals, then seeing the process of a real animal being turned into a stuffed carcass for us to look at, and finally looking at animals from behind the safety of plexiglass or from within cars. It also invites you to reflect on the effect of animals in captivity, taken from freedom in natural environments and put in steel or concrete pens and dealing with loud industrial noises. And throughout it features nice, understated photography and excellent compositions. So it's a good film to watch if you love animals, though if you love animals, you might find it pretty hard to sit through.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's very well done and inspires a lot of interesting thought.