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Charles Mudede: Zoo Story
By Andy Spletzer
January 19, 2007 - 8:21 PM PST

"The Internet made it possible."

It's hard to believe, but one of the most beautiful films at Sundance this year will be about a guy who was fucked to death by a horse. Back in 2005, when the Seattle Times reported on the "Enumclaw Horse Sex Incident," the story spread like wildfire across the Internet and became their most-read story of the year. It also caught the eyes of Seattle-based director Robinson Devor and writer Charles Mudede, whose dreamily poetic feature film Police Beat debuted at Sundance just six months prior. The resulting documentary essay is Zoo, which is premiering at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Based on interviews with members of the now-defunct Enumclaw horse sex community, who call themselves "zoos," the movie charts how the Internet brought this group together, and how the death of one of its members from a ruptured colon after having sex with a stallion broke this group apart. Far from a traditional documentary, the narration is taken from extensive audio interviews with members of the group and was edited together to form the spine of the story. On top of that, they hired actors to portray the incidents that were being spoken about, and they brought in their Police Beat cinematographer Sean Kirby to create beautifully evocative images to punctuate the story. The resulting film, Zoo, is surprising in how thoughtful it is and, like every good documentary, makes you think about ideas and situations in different ways.

One week before the movie was to premiere at Sundance, I sat down with writer Charles Mudede at Bad Animals, the audio post-production house where they were finishing up the soundtrack. Robinson Devor was supposed to join us, but nobody could find him. As Mudede explained to me, "I have to tell you that because Sean Kirby had to go home to New York for an emergency, Rob had to assume color correction responsibilities. He's also just been worked. I mean, you can imagine Sundance got this film after we had only about a week and a half to edit. And we had some green screen stuff. So he basically had to turn a film around in two months." Considering his work schedule, his absence was understandable.

Zimbabwe-born Charles Mudede is a film critic and columnist for the Seattle-based alternative weekly, The Stranger. He and Robinson Devor teamed up to transform his police blotter column "Police Beat" to the big screen, and Zoo is their second collaboration to premiere at Sundance. Mudede has a big laugh and a love of Proust and 19th and 20th century philosophy.

The spread of the news report about "the incident" was mostly a viral Web thing, wasn't it?

Yes, it was very Web-based.

What year was that?

2005, in late July. The story took two weeks to break, and finally it came out in the Seattle Times. It became their biggest story that year on the Web, the most read story. And it was educational, too. No one knew that bestiality was legal in this state. That was the first thing everybody learned. No one was breaking the law.

Was it a fetish circle? How would you describe it?

It was just a... first off, the Internet made it possible. There's no other reason why they got together, which is wonderful when you think about it. We didn't get this out in the film and I wanted to express this, but you can only do so much. I like the fact that the Internet, this advanced form of technology, made it possible to do something that you'd almost say was kind of... primitive. Right? You know what I mean? At the root, at the center of all of this, the exchange between nature, the wild, the animal and the human was only made possible by the foremost technology of our time.

The community was made possible through this technology. I think that does come through in the movie. I picked that up. One of the characters, I think it was the caretaker of the barn, he says, "I got a computer in 2002 and started with AOL."

Yes. That's right. "And I discovered myself. I discovered who I was. I was a zoo." I mean, he discovers it on the Web, which is amazing.

Wait, was that the caretaker or the first person in the movie, the coal miner?

No, it was the caretaker. The first person in the movie is called Coyote, and he's the one who comes from Virginia to Washington through the Web. He discovered there were like-minded people in Washington State and a place where he can express his sexuality and his sexual proclivities. He left Virginia for that. He's supposed to be the one who takes us to the group.

In the group are two main guys, and one of them is a truck driver. He narrates a big chunk of it. He's the guy who drives [the fatally injured] Mr. Hands to the hospital, and the other person is the caretaker, or the ranch hand.

One thing I thought of while watching the movie was the idea of public perception and 40s and 50s gay culture, where the lifestyle was completely underground and, for most of America, completely transgressive. Now we realize that it's okay, most of us, and gay culture has become mainstream and normal. But this incident... it crosses a line that most of us believe shouldn't be crossed.

The question sort of comes up in the film. The guys want to have greater acceptance in the community. They actually yearn for that, which is curious to me. In the culture I can understand extending acceptance to gays because they are humans, right?

Yes, it's human-to-human contact.

That doesn't really break down anything stable. What you're saying is, "Who am I? I'm a human." That's retained. "I'm a human who's a male who likes another male," or, "Who am I? I'm a human who's a female who likes another female."

But these guys, what they want to do is have us say something we've never said before: "I am human and I love my dog," or, "I love horses." That doesn't simply ask us to extend acceptance, it almost asks us to change society as we understand it. So it's a really distant, difficult call. But nevertheless, [director Rob Devor and I] wanted to hear what they had to say. Also, more importantly, what was it like to lose a friend in a circle that's very tight, that's very close, that's very fragile.

Now they can't meet anymore. Now it's illegal to do it. If they're caught, they'll be thrown into jail. They couldn't do that before, but now they will throw them into jail. So that's what they lost. They lost a friend, and they lost also a certain amount of freedom.


Community, freedom, all these things. In a way, one would say the film almost says, Well, no matter what, we're always sad about anybody who loses their community. That's always going to be sad. I think that's where the movie has a dark element to it, in that comment that we need communities no matter what we're doing, be it looking at clouds or playing cards. We love our communities.

Tell me a little bit more about the group. How big was it? When did they start?

It's all 21st century.

When the rural areas finally got wired for the Internet.

That's what happened. It is! I was surprised that they actually had access. You know that Enumclaw is pretty much out on the outskirts. When you drive there... in fact, when I went there in November of last year I was really shocked. When you leave Seattle it's, like, normal Seattle: Cold and overcast. And then you get there and it's so far out that it's another climate. It's snowing! It's a whole other world. It's about 30 minutes to get there from Seattle, on the very edge of King County.

Out there, if you look around, you'd be surprised to know that they had wireless Internet. They were actually broadcasting some of their horse fucking on the Web, directly. They were actually proud of this. With wireless.

To fellow enthusiasts.

Who wanted to watch it live. They actually said this; they were actually bitching that they couldn't get a good image out of it. They were actually upset about the quality of the image: it was too dark, the camera wasn't that good, and other technical problems. I loved this aspect of the technology piercing the real wild. You can see in the movie how that was a point of excitement.

The other thing to note about Enumclaw is that it is simply beautiful. They're by this mountain, the air is clear and it's green and it's quiet. It's incredibly peaceful. Even being out there, we made notes when it was snowing about how we had to capture this beauty, because they're enjoying horse sex in a very natural, paradisical environment. It was paradise, which is exactly what you'd sell on a postcard: mountain, white river, barn -

- and inside the barn, a horse scenario.

[Laughing] They admired the beauty of their surroundings. That's something they kept telling us.

Members of the group, did they live along the I-5 corridor or were they from all over the state?

They had a core group of locals, ranging from Portland to Seattle.

And how big was the core?

If I could judge this from what they said in the interviews, I'd say the core is probably about 10. I know there's five for sure, so I'm just going to guess and add about three or four more people. But! They had a lot of people coming from around the world all the time. They were very careful about that, too. I loved in one interview when they said about one of those who couldn't get in, they said, "Yeah, you know, some guy would come over and want to be part of it, but we would see them and they were just totally freaks." [Laughing]

So you had worked on Police Beat with Robinson Devor, based on your police blotter columns in the Stranger, and you were writing another script, The Minotaur, at the time. How did this movie rise to the top of the list?

We had two ideas, The Minotaur and this one.

But you didn't have this idea before the incident. How quickly did the movie idea gel?

He died on July 2nd, 2005. The story was out towards the end of July, and later that fall we were at the courthouse for one of the guys. In our film he's called "Happy Horseman," which is his Internet name. We used their Internet names. Happy Horseman was in court for trespassing. That's all they could get him on. We went to look at that, and at that moment we were already shooting possible footage for a film. So that was November of 2005, we were shooting footage for this idea. We were thinking maybe we would end it with this court case.

At this point we were already making the film. We actually hired the guy who shot We Go Way Back, Ben Kasulke [who won the Cinematography Award for We Go Way Back at Slamdance 2006]. We were doing primary footage with him. We went to the farm, we did all this stuff. We were already in film mode by that time.

Was that shooting on Super 16?

Yeah, yeah, it was. We were shooting this as a raw documentary. By November we were shooting the film.

Tell me about the writing process, about creating the structure and the tone. Documentaries are known to be vehicles where you collect stuff and shape it later. How much was shaped beforehand?

Two things happened. One is I wrote an article for the Stranger and that sort of called out to two people. One was Jen, who read it, who works for Hope for Horses. She called me at the Stranger and said, "I want to talk to you." She was trying to save another horse she couldn't save, and she actually got one of the Mr. Hands horses.

Then Coyote [the coal miner from Virginia] contacted us.

Then Happy Horseman [the truck driver] contacted us.

So we had these three people who were willing to talk, and so we got about four hours on Jen, four hours on, oh, all told we had about 12 hours of interview footage.

next >>>

"The Internet made it possible."
"We do have some theories about his death."
"All sorts of crazy stuff. It was really off the charts."

back to articles


Andy Spletzer
A film critic, filmmaker, and now a film programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival, Andy Spletzer has recently joined the "blogosphere" with Spletz-O-Rama. In his spare time he studies hobos, robots, pirates and Vikings.

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