“Postcards From The Zoo” and the Nonhuman/Inhuman Boundary

I am giving a talk at Aberystwyth University this week. The talk is about the many misappropriations of the “nonhuman” that I keep coming across in academic papers, artworks and articles. The central argument is that many of those authors who seek to renounce human privilege inadvertently end up reaffirming it, usually through the privilege of being able to ignore sites of colonial, sexual and other trauma in order to focus on the “nonhuman”.

The film Postcards from the Zoo (2012, original title Kebun Binatang) seems to offer another example of such experiments with blurring the boundaries of the human and nonhuman (warning: spoilers!). Shot primarily in Ragunan Zoo (Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, Indonesia), a fanciful 150 year old colonial endeavour, the film initially feels like a documentary: the viewer gets to see all the different activities that the three groups inhabiting the landscape of the zoo – visitors, animals and a mixture of human residents – are practising. Whether it is watching, feeding or washing, selling souvenirs or fairground rides, or even performing and recording animal sounds for experimental electronic music, everything seems unnaturally beautiful in its harmony – far from the negative image of zoos as site of animal languishing.


Image: Jera, the empire-making giraffe and Lana, the human and sometimes also a giraffe

In the course of these scenic and rather comical meanderings, one is introduced to the main characters of the film: Lana, a young woman who was abandoned by her dad in the zoo as a young child, and Jera, the giraffe who, even after a decade or two of knowing her, does not allow Lana to stroke her belly. Lana, raised in the zoo by its motley crew of legal and illegal, human and nonhuman inhabitants, knows a lot about giraffes. To visitors, she demonstrates how they can manage to run exceptionally fast, and she is aware of her main carer’s story of how the acceptance or refusal of the prestigious gift of a giraffe has made or broken empires.


Image: The cowboy leads Lana out of paradise.

One day, Lana, like the animals in the zoo, gets ‘relocated’ through meeting a young man dressed as a cowboy. He performs magic tricks and sometimes sleeps in the zoo, and therefore not an abnormality, since everything is magical in the zoo. One night, like Alice, she follows him into the wonderland of the outside. The cowboy takes her to his squat, transforms her into his assistant (= she is there to look pretty and has to lug all his gear around) and takes her on a tour of the town performing magic tricks in front of different audiences. Dressed as a stereotypical Native American woman, Lana becomes part of a knife-throwing act, a fake magic potion sales enterprise and eventually a residency in a spa-cum-brothel that is run by a violent gangster who parades violated naked women in front of his men and guests. In order to diffuse one such situation, Lana performs a protective giraffe manoeuvre – the one that gets the duo hired.


Image: Lana becomes ‘the Indian’ to the Cowboy

The magician residency comes to an end through the disappearance of the cowboy during the rehearsal of a fire trick. On telling the owner of the spa, he promises to ‘take care’ of her, meaning she will join the ranks for the masseuses/prostitutes that Lana had repeatedly observed from the backstage area. In zoo terms, another screen informs us, she is ‘translocated’. She is trained, penned in with a few other ‘girls’ and, like all of her previous tasks, performs her ‘care’ of the guests – from washing to sexual ‘comforts’. One day, she spots a zoo van in front of the brothel and sneaks out to drive it to the cowboy’s squat. Finding it abandoned, she puts on one of the ‘magical’ dresses that she hadn’t been  allowed to touch. It is a transforming dress made up of layers that each make the wearer appear as if she had been given a new outfit. She keeps the last layer visible and proceeds to return to the zoo.


Image: “Strong and long enough” – like the tongue of a giraffe

During Lana’s absence, the zoo has been presented as progressively less magical. It is full of families whose dads may well also be visitors at the brothel, full of repetitive advertisements keep blaring out of cheap speakers, and full of restless confined animals – it is as if the outside world has finally filtered into the unreal idyll. On coming back, Lana heads straight for Jera, the giraffe. Here, the film finishes on its last magical moment: Jera allows Lana to touch her belly.


Image: Lana and the giraffe finally see eye-to-eye

After finishing the film, I wondered what was more disturbing: the actual film or its many blissful summaries that portray the film as an innocent love or ‘coming of age’ story. First up, the Mubi introduction to the film:

“Whimsical mythology turns to longing as a girl turns into an adult.” Turning into an adult = trafficked into a brothel – nice euphemism… I could see why my friend from whose Mubi account we had watched the film had repeatedly complained to the company for muting violence against women in their summaries. Bizarrely, other reviews were following the same pattern. Screen Daily, for instance, summarises the film as follows: “A Jakarta zoo is the setting for a slow and dreamy magical realist romance in Indonesian filmmaker Edwin’s follow-up to his well-received 2009 debut Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly. Sweet and playful as a baby monkey, but with the lumbering pace of a hippo, the film has shades of both Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang (particularly Monrak Transistor) and Japanese manga guru Hayao Miyazaki (particularly Spirited Away) – in fact it feels a little as if the former had adapted and directed a script by the latter.”

Cute baby monkeys and bobbing hippos, and not, as my friend put it: “a dudebro’s magical realist wank fantasy”. How can the theme of trafficking and sexual violence not only not figure but turned ‘whimsical’? Further, this interview with the director manages to completely omit prostitution, and another insists that it’s the forlorn male clients who are to be pitied. Even pro-prostitution activists would have something to say about gendered power relations at play, especially given the blatant use of violence against the women who step out of line.

One could perhaps blame the dreamy quality of magical realism that make the whole story appear unreal – how can such a story take place, how can any woman be so naive? The nonhuman element further adds to a de-emphasising of human drama: ‘oh, it must be a metaphor for animal trafficking – she is really a giraffe!’ One review in Slant Magazine actually picked up on the non/inhuman quality: they felt it was “as if, to Edwin, the whimsical invention of the moment was all that mattered, not the humanity”. The dimension of colonial trauma, too, is enacted in a playful way, through the human/nonhuman boundary figure and sexual obedience fantasy of the “squaw”. It hints at the popular idea among certain men that women who are ‘closer to nature’ don’t protest what men do to them – because misogyny is the natural way of things. One should also not forget that there continue to be justifications for human zoos.


Image: Lana, ‘thrown away‘ by her family.

Despite such disclaimers, it still remains a mystery why the topic of sexual/gendered violence remains absent from most descriptions of the film. Postcards from the Zoo references so many misogynist clichés that the topic seems pretty unavoidable, whether it’s the myth of women’s pleasure from abuse or the ‘character growth’ of women through sexual trauma. How come the giraffe magically accepts Lana after her stint as a sex slave? Reward, empathy? There is a possibility that the nonhuman element complicates the (in)human narrative: that animals and women are both victims of systemic (colonial, patriarchal, capitalist) violence – as ‘nonhuman’ symbols that enhance status. The belly-stroking moment of the film could be a mutual recognition of shared trauma where, before, Lana could not see it. She was trapped in the illusionary utopia of the zoo. At the same time, it did not feel as if Lana perceived the outside any differently – for her, it seemed to remain a place much like the wonderland of the zoo, only that the care more one-sided and administered to naked male humans. So, technically, Lana had not left the space of harmoniously blurred human-nonhuman boundaries.

Another interpretation might be that the film narrates the story from the perspective of a trauma victim who is unable to express the actual trauma. An example of such a creative choice is Pan’s Labyrinth, where the girl Ophelia narrates the fascist violence of Franco’s Spain and the death of her family through a fantastical story, rendering their deaths and her own one meaningful. If this is the case, then the ending transcends from the trope of another ‘character building rape’ to perhaps a possibility of empathy or alliances with other oppressed  entities. The examples of failed interhuman love are replaced by more meaningful nonhuman alliances. There is also an echo of The Act of Killing, and the reimagination of genocide atrocities through innocent cowboy fantasies.


Image: ‘Postcards from the Zoo’ director Edwin. Source: http://manual.co.id/article/interview-edwin/.

I was curious how the director himself talked about the film in that respect, and also whether it related in some ways to Indonesian history. Indeed, in the Indonesian journal Whiteboard, the director Edwin reveals not only his own heritage as Chinese-Indonesian (Chinese-Indonesians were the victims of the recent genocide), but also his interest in the themes of voyeurism and displacement. As he states: “When you think about our displacement, then people aren’t too different from the animals we find at the zoo.” This also implies a lack of choices where one ends up: “During the Soeharto-era we didn’t even have a freedom of choice – we could only follow orders.” No choice between living and dying, because of arbitrary (in)human decisions. Is this why Lana seems to sleepwalk from familial abandonment into prostitution via identification with animals?

The theme of watching throws up questions where the answer is even less certain. As Edwin explains: “The film is also about how people watch each other and how people would like to be seen by other people.” Is this why hurt and abuse remain absent? Clearly, the director has a sense of the boundlessness of the power of the viewpoint. Discussing his new project, a film on sex and (Indonesia’s Dutch) colonialism, Edwin tells us that, “[w]ith colonialism, I see a parallel with pornography in which there is an exploitation by the people with power. Pornography is a form of exploitation so for me, that can be the way to view colonialism.” One conclusion would be that if the sexual violence of the perpetrators is not shown, they might lose their power – they are deprived of witnesses to their power and therefore also of admirers. Yet the disappearing of such acts does not stop them from continuing – it normalises them, as seen with the recent exposures of abusive ‘old boys networks’ from the BBC to Hollywood.

So far, I feel that a generous reading of the film would laud it as an experiment with connections between human and nonhuman spaces of oppression. Lana, initially discarded as ‘nonhuman’, fully naturalises into nonhumanity both in the eyes of the oppressors (those who draft her into their services) and other oppressed (the animals), while constantly challenging the oppressors’ own humanity and lack of awareness of (common) nonhumanity. Her time in the outside world only finalises this process and allows for the magical world of the zoo and its outside to finally blend into each other. The gates to nonhumanity are opened for all, for better or worse (here a choice may be implied). A more pessimistic interpretation would read the final scene as an affirmation that this nonhumanity is really an inhumanity that constitutes our condition of existence. As this inhumanity is only bearable by submitting to a nonhuman identity, the zoo rightfully merges with the brothel, leaving Lana to enthusiastically wank off Jera the giraffe in a matching animal suit and retire to the floor of an overcrowded room.

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