In The Final Member, two men are vying to be the missing human specimen in the Icelandic penis museum.
Colin McConnell/Toronto Star
Toronto filmakers Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor were tuned into their subject matter from an episode of CBC's As it Happens.
Toronto filmmakers Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math could have called their documentary Three Men and a Penis.
But the L.A.-based duo, friends since age 12 when they met at Upper Canada College, weren’t inclined to trivialize the subjects in their documentary The Final Member, which has its world premiere at Hot Docs May 1.
It’s the story of Icelander Sigurdur “Siggy” Hjartarson’s 37-year search for the only missing display in his penis museum — a human being — and the two men vying for their place in history by making the phallic donation. But it goes way beyond a locker-room joke.
“We treat it very seriously,” said Bekhor, who is in Toronto with Math to introduce the movie to audiences and do post-screening Q&A sessions. “It’s so easy when somebody says this is a penis museum to have a knee-jerk reaction and to say something sophomoric. But there’s something extraordinarily interesting to us.”
Inspired by a segment on CBC radio show As It Happens in 2007, Bekhor and Math went to Iceland to meet Hjartarson. There they found a serious scientific collector with 275 preserved penises from 45 species, from a massive whale part to a hamster’s teeny penis bone, which can only be viewed through a magnifying glass.
Hjartarson is a filmmaker’s dream: a droll character with a wonderfully dry sense of humour, which is present throughout The Final Member. But he is also a social scientist, a man passionate about completing his museum collection.
As the doc opens, two men are vying for the honour of being first by donating their manhood: Iceland adventurer and legendary ladies’ man Páll Arason, 95, and a 61-year-old American named Tom who sees his penis as a superhero with its own identity: Elmo. Tom is so determined to represent the U.S.A. as the first penis in the Icelandic Phallological Museum he even has Elmo tattooed with stars and stripes to make him more attractive. And we get to watch the deed being done.
“Tom is a fascinating guy,” observed Math. “He is an ordinary guy but he has this quirk where he thinks of his penis as a separate entity from his body — Elmo. He has this dream that he wants it to be the most famous penis in the world.”
Even when Tom appears to be going too far to realize his dream, Bekhor and Math stick to the unwritten rules of documentary filmmaking: let the story unfold as it will and be an observer.
Certainly that philosophy pays off with the quirky cast of Icelanders in the film, who all posses a wonderfully understated sense of humour and love of the absurd. Like when Hjartarson, sporting a bowtie made from whale penis leather, shows off carvings he’s made, phallic ephemera such as a portable bar and special tableware set he uses at Christmas.
“It’s a genius social experiment,” Math said of the museum. “It’s organized to challenge people to look at the penis in a different way. It’s a significant thing when it comes to the question of why something so essential to human life is still considered taboo. Siggy is deliberately confronting that in his museum.”
The “super low-budget” doc was shot over a four-year period, following the quest for the human specimen while chronicling Siggy’s work with the museum and his fear, amid failing health, that he may never see his dream realized.
“This film is not what people are going to expect when you hear it’s about a penis museum,” said Math. “It’s easy to go to a broad place but I think it’s emotionally moving and has moments of sublime comedy. There are things people have never seen before on film.”
While they hope to sell the doc to a distributor at Hot Docs, their immediate goals are that people appreciate the “unique and compelling” story about this unusual triangle.
“We want people leaving the theatres talking about this question of taboo,” added Bekhor.
The Final Member screens May 1, 9:45 p.m. at the Royal; May 3, 9 p.m. at the Cumberland and May 6, 7 p.m. at the Revue.
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