‘I Touched All Your Stuff’ (‘A Vida Privada dos hipopotamos’): Rio de Janeiro Review

Courtesy of Primo Filmes
An engrossingly weird, deftly made throwaway story

Cult-appeal documentary about a young American who fell in love in Colombia, and then fell off the rails

“Where can the explorer go when it’s all been explored?” wonders Christopher Kirk at the beginning of I Touched All Your Stuff, and the answer, if you’re Kirk, is to jail. An obliquely-told shaggy-dog story about the search for truth based on the 1990s adventures of the Michigan-born computer nerd turned romance seeker, Stuff is strangely compelling without ever really resolving into anything, its offbeat story and its offbeat treatment combining to provide an entertaining ninety minutes which strive to come across as deeper than it actually is. This kind of stuff seems made for smaller US fests with a taste for such quirky, sidelong fare.

The Portuguese title translates as The Secret LIfe of Hippopotamuses, which is great as a metaphor for the film’s subject, but which as a title is struggling too hard for quirky effect. Having briefly gone viral in 2004 after his friends amusingly wrapped all the contents of his apartment in tin foil, Kirk now sits at a table talking to camera (in English) with a practised ease which shows that this is not the first time he’s told this story.

Bored by routine, in the early 90s he took off to Colombia, ostensibly to check out the hippos which Pablo Escobar had illegally smuggled into the country and which, following his death, had remained on his ranch. (In terms of weird and wonderful magical realist moments, Stuff plays its strongest hand early.)

Kirk fell for his film’s femme fatale, a shadowy Japanese-Colombian beauty referred to only as “V” -- we have to trust Kirk on her beauty, since all we see of her in the film is a blurry snapshot. They embarked upon began a nation-hopping relationship, about which Kirk seemingly recalls every detail: but her true nature seemed to have escaped him as surely as it does us.

Frustratedly, Kirk hacks into V’s email account and starts to learn things about her which he’d rather not know. Obviously, she was lying to him: but in the grip of an obsessive fantasy -- in other words, in love -- Kirk refuses go let go. As one of his friends neatly puts it, in a hippo-appropriate metaphor: “If you’re thirsty enough, then drowning looks really good”.

This being a postmodernist movie, we get to meet the two Brazilian film makers, Buhler and Mariani, as they interview one of Kirk’s friends by Skype and others in person in the US, all offering their opinions of him and of his mysterious partner. Pretentious, vain and dull is one friend’s verdict, but Chris was head over heels: “She would get obnoxious,” he enthuses, “which was charming.” But V is the McGuffin: really this is all about Chris.

There are apparently plenty of Americans who are prepared to become drugs mules if it means having a little adventure and making a little money. As is well documented, Kirk became one of them and spent four years in a Colombian jail as a result. But frustratingly for those like him for whom the words “drugs” and “Colombia” spell “excitement”, the film never reveals quite how he got there, and viewers will have to go to the Internet for that.

Kirk gave the directors access to his hard drive, and much time is devoted, somewhat clumsily, to opening image and audio files on it, helping to build up a fragmentary picture of Kirk as an alternative to his own. Some of these files contain the film’s soundtrack, in the form of the bouncy, pleasant ballads of Joseph Arthur.

Really, this is a film about communications, or the lack of them, engendered by technologies which have indeed facilitated human contact but which have also complicated them enormously. Between chats which unfold a little confusingly onscreen, multiple cell phones and the occasional blurry image, “V” disappears from the viewer -- and so indeed does Chris Kirk.

It remains unclear whether he’s really a nerdy, charming romantic, a bearded drugs mule in dark glasses, an egotist prepared to talk for hours at any camera pointed at him, a serial self-reinventor (“like Pinocchio”, a friend says, “he wanted to be real”), or all of these things, or none. It’s precisely the point of the ephemerally intriguing I Touched All Your Stuff that Chris Kirk himself probably doesn’t know who he is.

Production company: Primo Films
Directors, screenwriters: Maira Buhler, Matias Mariani
Producer: Matias Mariani
Executive producers: Luis Dreyfuss, Marilia Alvarez Melo
Directors of photography: Pedro Eliezer, Basil Shadid
Editor: Luisa Marques
Sales: Primo Filmes

No rating, 91 minutes