True to its traditions, this year's Cannes Film Festival has hosted several controversial documentaries. Last week, critics applauded Michael Moore's out- of-competition entry Sicko about the American health industry. And in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar competition, Barbet Schroeder - whose credits include a film about Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin Dada - returned with The Terror's Advocate, a documentary about Jacques Verges, a French lawyer whose clients include deposed dictators and Nazi war criminals.
Both films were screened in the Palais des Festivals et des Congres - the heart of the festival - and showcased Cannes' penchant for the provocative. But it was at the other end of the Croisette, in a basement cinema free of glitz, that what may well be the most divisive film at the festival was shown: Robinson Devor's Zoo. Part of the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, the documentary focuses on a group of American men who have sex with horses. Their activities were brought to light when one of them, a Boeing engineer and a divorced father of a young son, died from a perforated colon after intercourse with an Arabian stallion.
For all its controversy, Zoo is a surprise hit. It's neither an objective talking-head treatise nor a moralist, sensational expose. Rather, it's a highly stylised work, with strong visuals and sound accompanying the reconstruction of events, often in slow-motion. Zoo resembles a feature film, and Devor says his inspiration came not from documentaries but arthouse favourites such as Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together.
'To me, an environment and a landscape and a physical atmosphere are as important as people or a theme,' Devor says. 'The raw cinematic element for a volcano [which overlooks the town of Enumclaw, where the horse-lovers - who call themselves 'zoos' - converge], men meeting in the shadows and summer nights ... those are powerful visual elements.
'So, we said, the documentary is always disappointing to the audience who go to see a visual essay. Let's try to break some rules - let's try to be as cinematic as possible.'
Not surprisingly, most of the zoos declined to appear on camera. Although bestiality wasn't a crime in Washington state when their activities came to light in July 2005, it has since been outlawed. A few agreed to speak off the record, and the material is used as voiceovers for the reconstructions that use professional actors.
Devor and fellow writer Charles Mudede received little support for the project. 'Most people don't want to be part of the movie - the hospital [where the zoo who died was dropped off by his friends], the neighbours, the people themselves, the city ... no permission, nothing,' says Devor.
One person who agreed to be in the film is Jenny Edwards, an activist for the charity Hope For Horses. She went to the farm where the zoos used to meet to round up the horses. She describes a zoo she met as 'a child-molester kind of person'.
True to Zoo's approach, Edwards' views are never made explicit or polemic, however. Devor also shows the deep intimacy Edwards and her husband, John, have for their animal charges, including spending the night with horses in open fields.
'The way [Edwards] spends very close time with her animals, sleeping next to them, she knows it's just one inch away from having that line being crossed,' says Devor. 'But it's a big inch.'
Then again, he insists that Zoo isn't intended to be an exploration of the psyche of the zoos or 'to try to find the abnormality, and study that'. He hesitates to agree that his film could be seen as a homage to people who are rendered social outcasts.
He says his intention was to see zoos as a starting point from which to explore how people in contemporary society harbour illicit desires, how they seek to address those urges, and the risks involved.
'There's probably a time when all of us have done something privately that we don't want to die in the process of doing - it would be humiliating if we were caught in what we were doing,' says Devor.
'It can be seeing another woman when you're married ... something that you don't want to be caught doing publicly.'
He says he was upset about trial-by-media to which the dead zoo was subjected.
'That was a very difficult way to die - the world was seeing the worst part of you. So, there was an opportunity to bring up the good things about somebody - we talked about trying to resurrect a reputation in a state of great shame.
'We're trying to find the light in the dark: noble human emotions, sorrow, love, respect ... all those things. The great challenge is to look for that in that difficult, embarrassing, shameful subject.'