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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Recensione: The Invisible Zoo

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- BERLINALE 2024: Il nuovo documentario di Romuald Karmakar si concentra sulle pratiche "naturali" dello zoo di Zurigo

Recensione: The Invisible Zoo

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Seven years after Romuald Karmakar presented his electronic-music documentary If I Think of Germany at Night [+leggi anche:
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in the Berlinale’s Panorama section, he returns with a feature about Zurich Zoo, this time in the Forum sidebar. The three-hour-long The Invisible Zoo takes its time to survey the ethos, the work practices and the animals in the Swiss institution, better known as “the natural zoo”. In a typically attentive manner, Karmakar employs long takes and editing patterns that underscore the shifting relationships between animals and humans, be they carers or visitors.

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The film opens with a ten-minute sequence of what seems like a rainforest: the bright green intensifies as rain splashes over the trees, and as thunder and bird sounds reverberate in the background, creating a tactile sense of the off-screen space. To magnify that effect, The Invisible Zoo uses original sound only, arranged in a 5.1 surround system (the kind to be found in home cinemas). Immersion is a tactic suitable for this kind of contemplative filmmaking, especially when filming animals in a zoo, since it draws the spectator in, aurally, and invites them to transpose the “freed” sounds over the confines of the frame. In Karmakar’s film, both close-ups and long shots feel equally stagnant, however beautifully composed, for restraint is an inescapable feature of every zoo.

At the same time, The Invisible Zoo wants to show us the many ways in which Zurich Zoo is not like other zoos. We meet with the director, veterinary specialists, virologists, engineers and educators, as they walk us through the multi-stage process of liberating the place from its colonial and custodial practices. From building a “savannah” with huge, tree-shaped feeding machines to designing spaces certain species can share, to an all-encompassing pedagogical approach towards visitors, staff and volunteers, a lot is being done. In fact, if it weren’t for the film’s length and its reliance on long takes, it could have easily slid into “infomercial” territory with its loud praise for the zoo’s different approach.

There is, still, some room for structural criticism, even if Karmakar does not dare to really go there. For example, switching between multiple points of view within the same scene allows the viewer to “be” on both sides of the glass separating animals from humans, and a fairly extensive sequence shows what happens to the last male zebra of a certain breed (nothing good). The act of paying attention and doing so insistently, for a long period of time, is political.

With all this in mind, it has to be said that The Invisible Zoo has had many precursors in its methods and goals. In a way, making slow cinema about animals and/or institutions has become the rule, rather than the exception: think of Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette [+leggi anche:
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(2010) or Denis Côté’s Bestiaire (2012, also shown in the Berlinale Forum). It is a perfectly legitimate and ethically informed formal approach, there’s no doubt about that, but its repeated use raises some questions: what is the purpose of such a film? Who is it in service of? Should we build better zoos? It’s unfair to expect an activist stance from every animal documentary out there, but there’s no denying the context it will become part of has to be challenged repeatedly. For these challenges to be successful, though, we have to keep reinventing the forms they take, both discursively and cinematically.

The Invisible Zoo was produced by Berlin-based Pantera Film.

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