Sometimes there's a story line: "Sweetgrass" was a wonderful documentary about an annual sheep drive, but periodically the movie just stared at sheep and listened to their unique sounds.
Even more minimalist was "Nenette," which spent its entire running time gazing at a long-lived orangutan at the Paris zoo. This certainly raises the issue of what kind of movie, exactly, we war watching, or if it's a movie at all, but if you've ever been mesmerized by the simplest Animal Planet program, you know what the appeal is.
The Canadian filmmaker Denis Cote has made a 72-minute feature, "Bestiaire," that ups the ante just a bit. Shooting at a safari park in Quebec, Cote looks at animals, yes, in various stages of activity. But he also trains his camera on the people around them, and finds humans to be just as worthy of contemplation at the other animals.
With one difference: you can't help noticing as you watch these mostly wordless scenes that the people on the screen are self-conscious. They know they've got a camera trained at them, and they look a little awkward, even when they're carrying out their chores around the safari park.
The animals simply are. And there is something amusing about watching ostriches' heads pass by in close-up before the camera, each one as alert as the last. Sometimes the framing is the point: we see a keeper tending to a monkey cage, but it's shot from the side, so we just get a glimpse of the monkey paws darting out from the cage, eager to get their daily feeding.
Cote makes quiet points about keeping animals locked up. For instance, when we watch the strange ceremony of a hyena being squeezed in its cage so it can be immobilized for examination by its loving keepers, the process looks like something from another era.
And then we come to the movie's coup de grace, as it shows a long shot of a line of cars, side by side, as they crawl through the safari park, the occasional zebra wandering alongside to take a look at these strange creatures sitting in their metal containers that burn gasoline and move at a snail's pace.
Then we get the point of this movie, and ask ourselves who's really being watched here, and whether or not we've created zoos for the human animals, too. All of which is neatly delivered in a dreamlike film that never stops to make its point, but allows us to observe, if we want.
"Bestiaire" (3 stars)
A non-narrative look inside a safari park in Quebec, where director Denis Cote simply watches the animals, and then makes us aware that we, the humans, are being watched too.
Rating: Not rated; probably G
Showing: Northwest Film Forum
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