The humans are watching something. It is not quite certain what they are watching, but as they are drawing and looking at their object in art class, highly concentrated, it must be a model. It actually is a model, but what the humans are drawing is not a person, not a live model, but an animal. A stuffed deer is their model, and this brilliant exposition already tells us what this film, Bestiaire, is all about: producing images of animals.
Bestiaire is one of those films that you have to call a documentary by definition. But judging from the way the film is put together and judging from the kind of information you are given, the term documentary doesn’t feel appropriate at all. The film is a quiet observation, and yet it is full of drama and tension just through its use of cinematic techniques like camera angles, editing and sound design.
Bestiaire is a film about animals and how humans treat them as objects. There is a lot of space for contemplation and reflection, since Bestiaire is a very quiet film. No commentary claims authority, no music score leads our emotions, no extra information pretends that this film is informative apart from what it is showing. The stress lies on presentation and on cinema as a language of its own. The cinematic language, as exemplified here in the language of sound and camera, can create something that forms content without explicitly telling its audience what exactly is meant by that.
We are watching animals – giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, lions, birds, buffaloes, tigers, zebras – their image and is what this film is about. Whether we draw them, stuff them or pay money to see them in a zoo, our relation to animals is one of distance and domestication. Canadian director Denis Côté believes in documentary filmmaking from a distance. As he said recently, he doesn’t believe in getting involved with the subjects of a documentary film for a long time and went to the zoo only once before, before making this film. His perspective of a stranger frees him from intellectualising and politicising what he films and gives him the opportunity to approach his subject, animals, with a fresh view. His cinematic decisions mainly concern framing and sound.
To frame something, in film terms, is to make a specific choice about the film image, its size and margins, in a certain shot. Most times we are not aware of a frame, since we are never to believe that what we are seeing is a restriction of what we are not allowed to see. In this film, framing is not only one of the most important stylistic devices, but also a cinematic commentary of its own. We, the audience, are never seeing it all and are consequently always made aware of the process of camera framing. We rarely see the entire animal, but more often the framing dominates how we see and perceive that animal. The camera’s unwillingness to move or follow, pan or zoom or show any kind of activity apart from rigidly sticking to its frame is a provocative means of withholding the entire image from its viewer. The buffalos enter the frame and leave it, but the frame stays the same. Oftentimes, the camera dismembers the animals by only showing parts of their heads or letting them reach into the frame by accident, like the giraffe that we only recognise later, cut into pieces.
Bestiaire, in that sense, is an animal anti-documentary film and a self-reflective art film at the same time. The film, through its framing, makes animals into artwork, but also makes it clear that this is a decision made by humans, not by the animals. Animals never decided to be fed instead of feeding themselves, they never chose a cage or a stall over the wilderness and they never chose to be models for the human gaze – whether dead or alive.
When we bring back to mind that we sometimes talk about the animal kingdom, this film feels like a bitter commentary of the power of one species over another. When we hear the zebras and the lions try to escape their captivity, we begin to feel a brutality that is not part of our perception as zoo visitors. Through the soundscape (which is highly manipulated, as director Côté confesses) a feeling of the uncanny creeps up in us. Something is awry here, something is wrong. The framing of the images builds up a sense of suspense, which is amplified by the disturbing noises of paws and hooves scratching. The frame is the border is the cage is the prison. It doesn’t help that towards the end children are joyfully riding on an elephant’s back and zebras are passing through the cars of an urban wildlife safari.
It rains or it snows or the animals are facing grey concrete walls or glass windows so that we can look at them. Bestiaire looks at the animals and frames the animals, but offers a very different approach, not only to looking, but to looking at animals, to watching them and producing images of them.
Bestiaire, Canada/ France 2012, 72 min.
director: Denis Côté, cinematography: Vincent Biron, languages: no dialogue (bits of French), distributor: arsenal distribution
Tonight, Bestiaire will premiere at the arsenal (Filmhaus, Potsdamer Straße 2, at Potsdamer Platz) at 7.30 pm in the context of the retrospective No Comfort Zone – The Films of Denis Côté which is showing Denis Côté’s entire body of work (until April 23rd).
The Fsk will be showing Bestiaire from April 25th – May 2nd. Director Denis Côté and cinematographer Vincent Biron will be present for an introduction and a Q&A with Christoph Terhechte, director of the Forum of the Berlinale, on Thursday, April 25th at 6 pm.
To win one of four guest list tickets for tonight’s screening at arsenal send an e-mail to email@example.com until 4 pm today, subject line: No Comfort Zone.