Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Zoo, an eleven-minute documentary directed by Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra in 1962 is an amusing, touching and humorous look at the way people and animals behave. It is a montage of people’s expressions when they visit a zoo, and the animals’ expressions in return when they see people watching them. The shots are all cut-to cut put together by associational editing.

It is obvious that Haanstra has not filmed the documentary with the knowledge of the people or the animals. It is footage from a hidden camera, which captures a two-way relationship that the human beings and animals share without realizing it.

Zoo uses the associational form of editing to show relational continuity for narration, with music that contributes greatly to the feel and pace of the emotions at play. Haanstra masterfully mixes zoo footage of the people who gawk at animals and parallely shows footage of the animals’ reaction to the same humans who gawk at them. The animals are seen to gawk back at the people, thus creating meaning in the shots, a certain sarcasm, giving a feeling of continuity through editing.

An example of this relation can be seen evidently when we see school kids entering the zoo to see the animals, and Haanstra cuts to close ups of a giraffe and the ostrich and they also take a look at the humans who have come to see them, which throws open the question of who’s watching who in the zoo. We see the style of walking of kids, old ladies, a young couple, an elderly couple and then its cut to the walk/march of the penguins drawing a similarity. Hence although the animals and the people in the zoo have been shot at a different space and time, the relational continuity helps us to forget the difference.

The establishing shot is very strong too. Haanstra starts by showing the rails of the cage with a lion in it and then a shot of people walking into the zoo followed by an old man standing behind the bars, drawing a relational parallel between the lion and the man. The editing bringing out these specific shots in continuation to give a brilliant introduction to the purpose of the documentary - to show that animals watch people too and in many ways how people’s actions are similar to those of the animals. For instance, there’s a shot of a father carrying his young son on his shoulders followed by a shot of a baby monkey sitting on the shoulder of its parent.

The music is what really drives the story. Pim Jacob’s jazz music gives the images a punch and creates the pace and feel of the developing montage. The meaning of the shots is punctuated with variations in the flow of music that runs parallel with the action on the screen. The inclusion of animal sounds in between gives an impression of the characters crucial in making the film. The best example is that of the parrot’s voice that comes in between the jazz music.

Zoo’s specialty is the frequent use of "rhyming images" and of images blending into each other. The film is perfectly able to catch the peculiarities of human behavior when they watch animals in a zoo. It is a tribute to the animals who we mock, emote and laugh at, as the film shows us their point of view and how they equally mock and laugh at us. Zoo is a delightful mix of humor, emotion and genuine expressions.


  1. this is so true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! when we gape at the animals in the zoo, we fail to realize that the animals are doing the same from their position, although in a more confined space! and we are all descendants from the primate. it is but natural that we ape them and they us. man after all is an animal too :) in all probability we might appear as world class fools to the animals in the zoo. however we fail to realize their mirth as we cannot comprehend their language :P just imagine if we were the ones inside the bars and the bear and the elephant and the panther came to the zoo with their kids and mocked at us and laughed at us!

  2. @ Paroma: I know! I must say this film was such an eye-opener to me..Now when I go to the zoo, I cant help but think about how the animals must be watching us too, just the way we watch and mock them. Man is so vain, he doesn't even realize the image he may have in front of "lower primates"..Our sadistic tendencies seem to surface in this unjust pleasure we derive from watching animals behind cages. Are we not trapped in this world of illusion?

  3. You must read Yann Martel's Life of Pi. Apart from its compelling story, it may change your perspective on the morality of zoos forever!

  4. "And who knows which is which and who is who." - Pink Floyd.

    This documentary shows us that there is no us and them. The filming brings out the similarity between humans and animals, whether it is in our facial expressions, our actions or our expressions of love. The fact that we are all social animals is also brought out well.
    The kinship is most remarkable in the presence of food - How animal like we are, or how human like they are - a matter that is best left to inclination.

    The film moves through a whole lot of characters through its screening, but retains familiarity through oft shown characters - the man photographing the parrot, the old couple walking hand in hand, the old man sketching, the ladies speaking animatedly. Shots of the old couple walking hand in hand, I feel, brings a sort of continuity through the film, from the start where people enter the zoo till the incidence of sleep.

    Great description of the associational editing, the music and the feature of rhyming images; you bring out the movie making angle beautifully. All of us may watch and appreciate films, but very few know what it is like to make the viewing profound and enjoyable.

    Finally, the aspect that cements our interchangeability is the portrayal of animals scaring humans in the beginning and human actions scaring them towards the end. We aren't too different after all, are we?

  5. Hey Fee! Beautiful observations! Pink Floyd's lyrics sums up the agenda of this documentary itself. How very apt! Zoo shows us how we could be them and they us! We call ourselves social animals, but how social are we really to our fellow animals? Haanstra beuatifully shows the parallels that exist between us and them, where we pretend to be civilized, but who are we fooling?

    The associational editing not only helps in creating a meaning in telling the real story of the Zoo experience of both sides - the visiters and the visited, it also helps bring out subtly the importance of various aspects of filmmaking, the relation of actions driven with the momentum of music, and the rise and fall of emotions to tie together a message.

    We aren't too different afterall.

  6. A lama came closer to fence and made a growling sound which attracted me to fondle n rub its neck; alas only to get spit all over me, actually it was gathering spittle to make it a worthwhile spit. How frustrating was it for me! more than how frustrated the lama was! The jackals adorn front of its cage with excretion and watch from behind how people run fast their cages. The newly caged tiger or lion roaring at its peak agitated and roaming restlessly day and night quite lamenting loss of freedom, only to be dejected later to its death. I remember when Nabil commented negatively about our aquarium.

    We are yet to grow up as care-takers of nature.

  7. Strong examples of the frustration of animals trapped withing the confines of cages for our amusement purposes. Makes us sound like sadists doesn't it? We think of ourselves as "higher mammals" but fail to realize that we follow the exact opposite when it comes to treating our fellow living beings. We create ways to entertain ourselves at the cost of others' misery.

  8. publish here your "caged rage"... must be befitting.

  9. Ah yes. It is caged somewhere. Should find it.