Life, usually, is a mess. Film, in most cases, isn’t. For obvious reasons, the most prominent way of telling stories in cinema always has been and probably always will be by linear narratives. Especially in times of increasingly fractured identities in an individualized, global and borderless contemporary world, linear storytelling in feature films can function as a two hour healer that restructures the mess surrounding us: a soul crutch in favor to put things back in a logical consequent order with a (happy) ending.
Human Zoo, by Danish director, writer and actress Rie Rasmussen, is not one of those films. This year’s opening feature of the Berlinale Panorama section does not solve its world and its character’s issues, but decides to show a sometimes inscrutable chaos, that can make it hard to understand what is going on and to decide between right and wrong.
Protagonist Adria is half Serbian and half Albanian. Human Zoo tells her story in two interwoven parts, one is set in the past during the time of the Kosovo conflict, and the other is set in present-day Marseille. The film contrasts her being confronted with the atrocities of war and crime during one period of her life, and the struggle to live a normal life as an illegal immigrant in France during the other. While jumping back and forth between these two worlds, Adria streaks along the bars of several human cages like place of birth, ethnicity, sex, gender, passion and love. Although recent events have again impressively proven that economic borders have already been broken down worldwide, a lot of other ones in the human zoo have not. Adria has to face the consequences of this fact in many ways, as is reflected in her different encounters. However, when it comes to violence and the decision about it being justified or unjustified, moral or immoral, right or wrong, legal or illegal, the aspect of borders reaches its climax of complexity. This also is something Human Zoo deals with, confronting the audience with the impossibility of giving clear answers to these questions in some matters.
All of this takes place in two complementary aesthetics, which are intercut and sometimes convey the impression of a cinematic roller coaster ride. Light and dark themes, violent memories of the past, moments of passion and lust in the present are alternating. Rasmussen succeeds in creating a dense atmosphere of emotional states that are as different as they could possibly be. We are given very few moments to catch our breath, and the film is further enhanced by an energetic soundtrack as well. In spite of its sometimes confusing narrative structure, Human Zoo is still a straightforward and dedicated film, full of unresolved conflicts.
Although far from being flawless on a technical level, despite containing some bad (over-) acting (particularly by male lead Nick Corey), these open conflicts exactly represent the true quality of Human Zoo. It does not give all the answers, does not order the chaos, does not eradicate all doubts, but leaves at least some of these challenges to the audience. It is a bold, in some ways, politically incorrect piece of 21st century cinema that dares not to care about perfection and a neatly polished texture. Paradoxically, it is these very flaws that add up to its power, so that finally, in all its emotionally draining mix of disturbing violence and passionate love-making, it leaves something in your head that survives the end titles. Of course, one film might not blow away the borders in our head but Human Zoo definitely puts on some spotlights, guiding us to see them in a new way.