Denis Côté is worried about his new film. He’s afraid that people think it is anti-zoo. Before the movie began, Côté, in his unnatural English, emphasized to us that he had to choose his words carefully while he spoke. He defended the film, saying, the real question he wanted to answer was “can we see animals in their purity in unnatural environments?” By unnatural he meant different, and by different I mean unfamiliar. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of my own situation, sitting in a theater, listening, slouching (or not), watching – was I being natural in an unnatural environment? What about my apartment, was it an unnatural environment?
As the film progressed, I was unconvinced. That was until I saw the lions. In one of the many poignant, carefully chosen shots, a lion, seemingly frustrated, scratched at the cage door. The door thundered. Up until then, the film had been somewhat quiet. Now it seemed the lion wanted to break loose. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking about my childhood cat: she scratched at my door, rocking it, wanting to get in.
For most people, when they see an ostrich walk up to a fence, and look into the horizon, or when we watch the legs of the zebras frantically slide and scurry in a small enclosed concrete chamber, they see “unnaturalness.” They translate the animal language to their own – “I want to break free.” But, what if instead of a fence, it was a rock wall or a wall of low shrubs? Or if the zebras slid and scurried in an open prairie? The problem that Côté is facing is not that his audience doesn’t understand the film (or him), but that they don’t understand their own condition. At one point after the film he said, “the more I talk about [the film], the more I’m going to contradict myself.” The contradiction doesn’t arise from Côté’s explanations, or his ability to carefully select words, it arises from the movie viewer, enclosed in the movie theater (enclosed in their minds). If one glances at the movie and translates the animal’s actions rather than our reactions, the film will seem like an anti-zoo film. But if one recognizes that film evokes our self, it is not that at all