Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor know what you might be thinking, but their doc about the Icelandic Phallological Museum, "The Final Member," is not just another dirty night at the movies.
After hearing about curator Sigurdur ('Siggy') Hjartarson and his search for a human penis -- the only specimen missing from his massive collection that covers the house mouse to the sperm whale -- the guys hopped on a plane to Iceland from their current homes in Los Angeles. The rest is for you to discover and enjoy in this fascinating doc.
We caught up with the filmmakers at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.
How did you make the decision to drop everything and cover the final stages of Sigurdur Hjartarson's 40-year penis odyssey?
Zach Math: After I heard about it, I told the story to Jonah and said my mind was blown, and his mind was blown. I think anyone who hears the initial story ... it definitely piques your interest. For us, it was a unique story we had never heard before and we compelled to go and interview the curator of the museum. Three weeks later, we literally found ourselves in the North of Iceland, 30 miles from the Arctic Circle, interviewing the curator of the only penis museum in the world.
After we meet the aging curator in the film, we're quickly introduced to two men who want to donate their goods. Who the heck are these guys?
Jonah Bekhor: The first donor is this icon in Iceland, Páll Arason. This 90+ year old man is a pioneer of adventure tourism, he went into the highlands, the wild of Iceland. He is also known as the greatest lothario and womanizer in the history of the country, a boaster, a braggart and a self-aggrandizing character. He is just trying to build his own myth, but strange things happen with atrophy as he deals with old age.
Tom is the American willing to donate his penis. He's a true original.
JB: He's this interesting enigma of a guy. If you just saw him on the street you would think he was an ordinary guy -- he could be the accountant on my street down the block. He has a quirk where he thinks of this penis as a separate, almost alien, identity attached to his body. For the last 30 years he has dubbed his penis 'Elmo'. He has a dream that his penis will become the most famous penis in the world, and he sees this museum as an opportunity to achieve his ultimate fame. He decided that he doesn't want to wait until he dies to donate his penis, he wants to donate it while he is alive to he can bask in the fame that his penis gets. He doesn't look like a niche weird subculture individual, but when you go beneath the surface, he has this obsession and this deep passion that is very unusual.
ZM: We peeled back the layers, and there are a lot of layers to Tom -- everything became more and more amazing. And what really developed was this almost quasi-competition between the two men, because both of their legacies were tied up in being the first in this museum. There's great comic tension borne out of it and also this great insight into the male ego and how it's associated with the organ.
He asks Siggy if he can have the specimen back in its display during the off-season, and that means Elmo would be in Iceland during the summer and come back to America so that he could be with Elmo in the off-season. He wrote us an email saying that he had had a nightmare about him with Elmo, throwing a party at his house, everyone was hanging out with Elmo and then everyone left the room to go have dinner, and when they got back the cat had taken Elmo out of the house and he was just horrified. It was a really sincere expression. It supplanted the idea that we were dealing with an extremely unique individual.
He wants to use plastination to preserve his penis, correct?
JB: Tom had a dream that he wanted to be preserved as lifelike and robust as possible. The best way to do that is with plastination, which people have seen in the 'Body World' exhibits. He contacted the lab in Italy.
Was there any criteria the human penis had to meet to get into the museum?
JB: There are two criteria for a specimen, the first being you need a legal letter of donation signed by witnesses. The second is that it needs to meet the legal length requirement of five inches, which is based on an old Icelandic folk tale about a woman who goes to the government asking for a divorce because her husband only has three inches and she demands five inches. Iceland is such an incredible place, steeped in folklore, and that's an intrinsic part of the culture and it plays into the film in an important way.
Are we talking extended length or more flaccid levels here?
JB: We are talking extended length, but where it gets even more interesting is that there is a discord between what's considered an inch in different Scandinavian countries at the time. The classic Icelandic is different from the Danish version. Siggy actually has a chart detailing what is considered five inches in different countries.
We get a look at the museum in the film, but it must have been a sight to see up close -- that's a lot of penises!
JB: It's up in the middle of nowhere. You go in and the museum is so scientifically arranged -- hundreds of specimens from every type of species. It's awe-inspiring. Where else can you see the penis bone from a mouse, which is less than two millimeters, and then a section of a sperm whale, which is over six feet?
ZM: He uses carefully done subversive humour to encourage people to confront this question of taboo around the penis. Why is something so central to human life so taboo? He rides this very fine line that allows people to question things in a new way.
Was there a penis in there that left you scratching your head?
JB: One of the notable specimens is a penis bone from a cave bear that has been extinct for 30,000 years. The history of that is quite phenomenal.
People might think this is just some porn flick about penises -- perception is tricky here -- but this is actually a human, heartwarming story.
JB: This film is not what you expect it to be. Certainly there are moments in this film that are sublimely comic that people will have never seen on the screen before. It can be shocking or moving at times. The human story is rich and layered and it was rewarding for us. What didn't interest us were the knee-jerk sophomoric aspects that people might react to on a superficial level when you just hear the idea. It will defy expectations in a real way.
'The Final Member' is currently screening at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto:
Thu, May 3, 9:00 PM
Sun, May 6, 7:00 PM
You can check out local theatre times on "The Final Member" website.