In the documentary The Final Member, Toronto-born filmmakers Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math venture to Iceland to follow Sigurdur Hjartarson on his journey to find a human specimen to add to his penis museum — the only museum of its kind in the world. As the film unfolds we meet the two men who want their members on display and learn why Mr. Hjartarson has dedicated his life to collecting penises. It’s an oddly sweet and funny character portrayal that will shock and amaze you at times and leave you questioning the entire idea of a museum of this nature.
Criticize This! spoke with Bekhor and Math about the film, which premieres tonight (May 1) at Hot Docs. Read our Q&A below.
How did you first hear about the museum?
Zach Math: In the summer of 2007 I was driving down the highway in Los Angeles and was listening to the CBC’s As It Happens and they were interviewing the curator of the only penis museum. He was telling the story of this 40-year museum he had built with all these penises except that he was missing one; a human penis. He spoke about the men who had stepped forward to donate and I was a completely transfixed. A few nights later I sat down with Jonah and told him the story and his mind was equally as blown. Three weeks later we found ourselves in the North of Iceland, 30 miles from the Arctic Circle, interviewing the curator of the only penis museum in the world.
What made you decide this would make a good topic for a documentary?
Jonah Bekhor: The idea of the penis museum is this instantaneous spark of curiosity and fascination. But it was when we discovered the human story behind this spark that we knew it was a story worth telling. The two donors are these incredible guys. The first guy is this 90-plus year-old icon in Iceland who was a pioneer of adventure-tourism in the highlands and is also considered to be the greatest womanizer in Iceland’s history. He’s a larger than life character trying to build his own myth and is succeeding to some degree. Then there’s this American who’s this amazing enigma of a character. He looks like he could be the accountant who lives down the street from you, but he has this quirk where he thinks of his penis as this separate entity from his body that has been nicknamed Elmo for the last 30 years. He has a dream, and his dream is for his penis to be the most famous penis in the world. He sees donating to the museum as a way to achieve this. For him he doesn’t want to wait to die so he can experience the fame his penis is going to get in the museum and has decided to cut it off before he dies.
Was it easy getting everyone to talk about this on camera?
Zach: People seemed to be very open. Everyone had their own individual quirks behind the scenes for sure. They are clearly men who march to the beat of their own drum and there was some eccentricities.
Did anything surprise you while filming?
Zach: [laughs] Every step of the way! You start delving into characters like this and subject matter like this and it just becomes more and more fascinating. The relationships between the men became more and more contentious and dramatic and it really is a film that does have sublime comedy, but it’s born out of these men being so committed on many levels and obsessed with achieving their goal.
Jonah: It’s funny when you ask if things were surprising during the course of making the film. Certainly the fact that this incredible human drama was unfolding about a penis museum and the search for a human specimen… there were moments all the way through where Zach and I would just look at each other and couldn’t believe what was going on.
How did you divide the directing duties?
Jonah: It was just this situation where it was the two of us working together throughout the entire process of making this film. It was pretty seamless.
Zach: We’ve known eachother since we were 12. When this movie came about 5 years ago it was really just two friends grabbing a camera and going to make a movie. We have different strengths and perspectives and that helped us make a really good movie.
How important is it for you to get the film into Hot Docs?
Jonah: Hot Docs is a great place to launch a film. First of all it’s the premiere documentary film festival in North America, no doubt. Plus, on a personal level, being from Toronto, it’s such a treat to be able to launch it in our hometown with our friends and family.
What do you hope the audience gets out of it?
Zach: It would be great if they enjoy the movie and it spurs conversation. Both Jonah and I really like movies that don’t answer all the questions and where people come out of them and there’s continual discussion. We also hope people laugh and feel moved.
The Final Member premieres at Hot Docs on Tuesday, May 1 at 9:45 p.m. It screens again on Thursday, May 3 at 9 p.m. and Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit hotdocs.ca.