'The Final Member' documentary confronts taboo topic
Sigurdur Hjartarson, curator of the the Icelandic Phallological Museum, is shown in a handout photo. "The Final Member" is about the world's only penis museum - and its curator Hjartarson.
Published Monday, April 30, 2012 1:48PM EDT
TORONTO - "The Final Member," about the world's only penis museum and its curator, isn't mean to be an "issue film," say Toronto-bred documentary makers Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor.
But they do hope it will encourage people to question the idea of the male organ as a taboo topic. That's also the goal of Sigurdur (Siggi) Hjartarson, who is interviewed in the film as founder of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.
"The real purpose for what he's doing is to bring people into this world where all these male specimens have been laid out in front of them, and it's deliberately to challenge people to look at it in a different way," Bekhor said in an interview at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
"The fundamental question with this film, as with Sigurdur Hjartarson's museum is: why is something that's so central to human life still considered a taboo?"
"The Final Member," which makes its world debut at Hot Docs on Tuesday, offers a compelling look at Hjartarson and his 40-year odyssey to add a human specimen to his mammalian phallus collection.
A well respected educator, author and translator who has been known to confront taboo subjects in the classroom, the 70-year-old Hjartarson started collecting penises in 1974 after he received a bull's member as a joke from colleagues.
His museum has a wide range of specimens -- from that of a sperm whale to a polar bear to a reindeer -- on display in glass boxes, formaldehyde-filled jars and wall mounts.
"It's scientifically set up, there's nothing lascivious about it," said Math. "We would almost go so far as to say it's almost like this ingenious social science experiment or almost art project in the sense that what great museums and great art do is they force people to question conventions and look at things differently."
"If that's the purpose -- to challenge people to look at things differently, to challenge people to think differently -- what does that better than a penis museum?" added Bekhor.
Cameras also capture the journeys of two men who've volunteered to donate their genitalia to the museum and are in a competition of sorts to be the first one to do so. One donor is a famous, 90-something Icelandic pioneer of adventure tourism and self-proclaimed womanizer; the other is an enigmatic California resident who's had a "lifelong dream" of seeing his penis, which he calls Elmo, become famous and put on public display.
"There's an inherent comic tension with the subject matter because it's taboo," said Math. "The psychology of the viewer in the seats and what they bring within themselves and their own sexuality, and where we're at as a Western society -- playing with that tension, we were certainly aware of that potential when we were making that movie."
"I wouldn't say it's a Rorschach test, but depending on how you react to it really says a lot about what your relationship is with that element of the human anatomy," said Bekhor. "It's a really interesting phenomenon and we're really curious to see how audiences respond."
Math heard about Hjartarson in the summer of 2007 when he heard a CBC Radio feature on him while driving down a highway in Los Angeles, where he and Bekhor live and work as filmmakers.
Three weeks later the longtime friends flew to Iceland to begin shooting their first feature film, which features gorgeous cinematography and the same clever, subversive humour Hjartarson has injected into his museum.
The two were surprised that the curator turned out to be "the most normal character in the film," said Bekhor.
"He is the guy that is totally normal and totally reasonable, and is a really celebrated educator and a really important person in the lives of a lot of people that grew up in his schools when he was headmaster or a professor.
"But this little twist of fate made him the curator of a penis museum and then this journey begins."