Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/14
World premiere: 1 May, 2012, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

In the little town of Húsavík, Iceland, there is* a museum, the Icelandic Phallological Museum. This is the world's only museum, that is, devoted to penises - all kinds of penises, from great large whale penises to practically invisible rodent penises, even the penis-bones of extinct animals. What it did not have, until 2011, was the penis of a human being, and this caused considerable grief to Sigurður Hjartarson, whose decades-long habit of collecting phalluses - on seemingly no other grounds than the fact that nobody else was doing it, and nobody discouraged him - finally blossomed into the museum only in the late 1990s; for he thought, perhaps correctly, that without a human specimen, his was but a shell of a penis museum, incomplete and silly.

The documentary The Final Member is about Sigurður's - Siggi, to all who talk about him onscreen - attempts from 2007 to 2011 to complete his collection, which rather shockingly, given everything, was not a matter of not finding any available donors, but of having too many: one belonging to Pall Arason, an Icelandic nonagenarian who claims to have bedded more women than any other man in that country in the 20th Century, which thus gives his penis a certain sociological value in addition to the biological; the other to Tom Mitchell, an American whose affection for his genitalia goes far above even that of most males: fondly referring to it as "Elmo", a name given by one of his ex-wives, he seems to consider it a separate entity if not a separate consciousness altogether from himself, believing it to be more than worthy of enshrinement as the most famous penis in the world.

Understanding the giggle-inducing potential of their subject, co-directors Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor indulge in all of the expected "ew, penises!" gags or gag-surrogates early on; but it very quickly becomes clear that this project isn't intended to mock or titillate anybody, but to depict with sincerity and good humor the story of one man's quest to complete the collection that is one of two things that will ever prove to the world that he existed (the other, amazingly, is a translation of a text written by Spanish monks into Icelandic, a project that only gets a couple of mentions over the course of the 73- minute film, but feels like a horizon promising an entirely different, just as fascinating documentary on Sigurður's life), with diversions into the strange political ramifications of the competition to be the first donation - Sigurður would prefer an Icelandic specimen, while Mitchell just as obviously wants to get his member into the collection as a means of expressing American supremacy even in such a strange field as this; his patriotism vibrantly demonstrated in a decision that would make everyone who owns a penis themselves to flinch in agony if I even described it - into the angst that Pall Arason feels as he realises that his mighty age has turned his beloved phallus into a shriveled little stump; into the strange mind of Mitchell, whose dissociation from his body goes above and beyond a desire for fame into some apparently undiagnosed form of mental illness - he's willing, if not in fact eager, to donate Elmo while he is still alive, while Pall rather more sensibly would prefer it be cut from his corpse.

Far from being just a tacky series of jokes on a shocking subject - you have to admit, the idea of a penis museum documentary is utterly compelling on the level of pure gaudiness - The Final Member is a serious take on its subject, treating all of its principles as human beings with dignity who deserve respect, even if, in the case of Mitchell, it must have taken all the filmmakers' willpower to remain so far above crude jokes. The film is funny, often hilariously so; but it is always funny because the people involved are aware that the circumstances they've found themselves in are inherently absurd and a good sense of humor is the only way to approach it rationally, and never because Math and Bekhor make easy potshots. At times, the film is even tender, especially in the moments revolving around Siggi's increasing disappointment at the thought that his great work will be left incomplete. And, too, the film explores human dynamics with considerable ease and depth; the increasingly strained relationship between Siggi and Mitchell especially, hinging on issues of artistic control that seem, to Mitchell, obviously fair given the importance he places on Elmo, and to Siggi, completely unacceptable given that he wants to run a respectable museum.

If it has a flaw, it's that the directors want it to be so much more provocative than it is; to challenge our notions of why penises are so embarrassing when they're really just part of an animal like any other. And while that might be a question that the museum itself raises, the documentary never comes within a mile of it, staying instead within the strict limits of three men's desire to leave behind a legacy, in whatever weird form it takes (the whole thing is extremely similar to The King of Kong, with a competition to have an immortal penis replacing the competition to set a video game record; the difference being, of course, that The King of Kong never wants to be more than a simple human interest story, and is therefore a great one). This mismatch between the goal and the accomplishment isn't critical, or even all that noticeable except in a few scenes, but there is a lingering sense that The Final Member wants to be less simple than it is, and that hurts it. At any rate, it's a good thing that it's a short as it is - length would only exacerbate this problem - and the film we end up with, if no masterpiece, is a darn fine, funny, and moving look at the strange things people do, and how wonderful they are for doing them.