Filmmakers document the Icelandic Phallological Museum’s search for a human specimen
Only a minute into ‘The Final Member’ and there’s already a dismembered set of genitalia on the screen. Sigurður Hjartarson carries a plastic bag filled with the bloody pink specimens: the penises of two types of seals and a porpoise (with both testicles). They’re perfect and Sigurður is pleased.
Set to screen at RIFF, this documentary by long-time friends Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math treats its subject matter with a respect most people aren’t accustomed to giving phalluses. To the average passerby the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which recently relocated to Laugavegur 116 from Húsavík, is a curious novelty, something to point out and laugh about. But when Zach Math heard a radio interview on CBC’s “As It Happens” featuring the museum’s founder Sigurður, he saw a story waiting to be told.
“After I heard this story I called Jonah up and I said ‘We gotta go interview Siggi, we gotta go make a movie about this guy, because he’s absolutely fascinating,” Zach says. “What we uncovered is this great tension and competition.”
The film centres on Sigurður’s collection of mammal penises, a project forty years in the making. What started out as a private collection in his home grew to include over 275 specimens, from the two-millimetre penis bone of a hamster to the seventy-kilogram member of a beached sperm whale. But his collection was missing one key penis, of the Homo sapiens variety until 2011.
The film follows two men who vied for the honour of being displayed in Sigurður’s collection. On the home front, 95-year-old icon and retired womanizer Páll Arason volunteered to donate his member posthumously. Meanwhile, Tom Mitchell, an eccentric American with a red, white and blue penis, was just as determined for his second head (called Elmo) to hold the honour. This battle constitutes the central conflict of the film and also gives it some heart.
Sigurður, the dry scholar and educator turned curator, is as fascinated by taboos as he is by genitalia and has devoted a large portion of his life to treating a basic, necessary but often ridiculed body part with scholarly attentiveness. Zach would go so far as to call it a social experiment, or an art exhibit.
“If we look at what great art does or… what great museums do, they force us to question things and look at things from slightly different perspectives,” Zach says. “And certainly that’s Sigurður’s objective.”
During nearly five years of shooting the two filmmakers developed close relationships with the three subjects of their film as well as with the country itself. With the documentary set to make its European premiere at RIFF, the hope is that Icelanders give this story the same attention the Canadian filmmakers did.
“I don’t want people in Iceland to dismiss the movie. Everyone in Reykjavík can walk by the museum everyday and kind of have a laugh, but we don’t want them to just dismiss the film because of that superficial little experience,” Zach says. “You might think you know this story because you walk by the museum, but it’s way more than you think.”