You’ll probably never see anything quite like Toronto natives Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s penis-mentary The Final Member. Bekhor and Math travelled to the Icelandic Phallological Museum for their documentary, the only penis museum on the planet. If the idea of a documentary all about penises is not far out enough, just wait until you meet Sigurdur ‘Siggy’ Hjartarson, the delightfully eclectic creator and curator of this unique (and penis-shaped) gem of a museum. Siggy is responsible for gathering and preserving the wide array of specimens at the museum, a 35 year long undertaking that has allowed him to preserve almost every mammalian penis on the planet.
One of the great things about The Final Member is the documentary continually introduces us to interesting personalities. The soft spoken American Tom (who names his penis “Elmo”) and the senior lethario playboy Páll are fascinating enigmas all on their own, and even more so once they both offer to donate their penises to the museum. While Bekhor and Math gracefully unfold the story of Siggy’s pursuit of penis happiness, The Final Member makes a bold statement about the nature of penis education and the international cultural stigma that has made its discussion unnecessarily taboo. Dork Shelf sat down with Bekhor and Math to discuss their breathtaking on-location footage, watching penises get tattooed, and Icelandic folklore.
Dork Shelf: This film looks super crisp and is obviously in high definition. Although this is considered to be industry standard now, is there a reason you wanted the visuals of the film to looks so pristine?
Zach Math: When we’re talking about the story, there is a quest element. A kind of epic quest, and also the beautiful epic scenery in Iceland just kind of lends itself to some really amazing photography and it just kind of mirrored the quest theme and story of the land.
Jonah Bekhor: It’s a cinematic land. It’s almost Middle Earth.
DS: Yeah it definitely had a Lord of the Rings feel to it…
JB: Yeah, it’s volcanic and fiords and ice and mountains. I mean, it lends itself a cinematic feel but certainly that’s the way we approached it, we approached it in a very cinematic way.
DS: This film is kind of a far out, I mean, it’s a man trying to find a human penis to put it in his penis museum-
JB: But is it really a far out idea?
DS: Well how did this all start?
ZM: As the story goes, I’m driving in Los Angeles one evening in the summer of 2007 and I’m listening to As it Happens and Carol Off is interviewing the curator of the museum – the only penis museum in the world – in Iceland, and he’s telling the story about his thirty seven year collection of all Mammalian penises, except he’s missing this one penis and two guys who have stepped forward to donate their penises. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, I pull over to the side of the road and I’m trying to find a piece of paper to take notes, this is before iPhones, 2007 you know? I have dinner with Jonah a few nights later and I’m like “this just completely blew my mind.” We download the CBC interview and his mind is blown.
JB: Maybe like a day later we get Sigurdur on the phone, and then three weeks later we’re in Iceland. To investigate, to see what’s going on over there. It just went on from there.
DS: So that’s when this idea started becoming real then?
ZM: It’s pretty real when you get on a plane and go to Iceland. [laughs]
JB: The idea of it as inspiration, it’s fascinating. I mean this penis museum and this guy searching for a human specimen. The spark is one thing, that’s what really got us interested. But it wasn’t until we met and spoke with these guys that we realized that there is this incredible human story unfolding and it’s really worthy of telling. That’s really the process, I mean you get inspiration and you think: is there a story here that never was?
DS: Potential American penis donor Tom and Siggy can’t seem to see eye to eye. Who do you think was in the right?
JB: It’s such an interesting thing because clearly he [Tom] was just bombarding Siggy with emails. Tom’s point was: “this is a huge deal, I’m giving someone my penis” I mean it can’t get bigger than that. Doesn’t that deserve some type of recognition and nurturing in the process? Where Siggy is like “listen, I’ll gladly receive it [the penis], but I don’t want to be enabling him in any way.” So, you can understand both their points of view.
DS: What was it like watching Tom get his penis tattooed?
ZM: It’s psyche scarring for sure. I mean, we both were cringing-
JB: Our DP was like “Stay one the penis! Stay on the penis!”
ZM: It’s this weird juxtaposition between being freaked out and probably reacting like most normal, well adjusted human beings would react, and then juxtaposed with Tom who’s just cool as a cucumber just receiving. It’s just another step in accomplishing his dream for ‘Elmo’, planting it in the museum.
JB: What’s interesting about Siggy’s museum is that in a way, and actually quite deliberately, it’s like this social science experiment. It’s so scientifically laid out, but when people come in he wants to challenge them to look at the penis. What is so strange about this thing? What about this thing that is so essential to human life that is so taboo? Through his exhibition and through his subtle use of humour, he wants people to come in and look at things slightly differently and question that idea of what is taboo.
ZM: Part of his genius and what attracted us to him as a character was this sort of ingenious use of humour. This line that he drew where he could be so serious and, at the time, so self possessed and the obsessive nature of his collecting would come out, and yet also be self aware about the tension and the humour he was using in the museum and the power of humour, if its done very cleverly, to force people to see things from different perspective.
DS: There were many scenes where penises are being boiled or unloaded from containers– I can only imagine the smell. Were there any scenes that were hard to film?
JB: I think when he’s in preparation it definitely smells. When you’re dealing with formaldehyde and its all fresh and your preparing a specimen, at certain point its not quite as powerful. Really, it all just subsides. But in the process of actually working with the specimens and preserving the specimens, it’s powerful.
ZM: When he was boiling that penis, it was bad. It was so bad! That was the one thing that we were like “thank god that in cinema you can’t smell stuff!”
JB: He told us this story that early on in his process: he used to take his wife’s pots to prepare the specimens. I guess he was doing it at the house that day and the smell was so bad, and it wafted up the stairs, that his wife Jona was just marathon vomiting.
DS: What is the strangest looking penis you guys saw in this museum?
ZM: One of the specimens that didn’t factor into our story, but does show his [Siggy’s] sense of humour and also is an interesting window into the folklore of Iceland is the ‘hidden man’s’ penis that he has in the folklore section of the museum.
JB: Yeah, Siggy has a folklore section in the museum.
ZM: The folklore culture in Iceland is very present. What’s funny about it that only women can see the ‘hidden man’s penis’.