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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: March 27, 2017

A man called Zoo and the filmmaker who couldn’t take his eyes off of him

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Photos by Reginald Groff

Photos by Reginald Groff

If you’ve gone dancing at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge in Portland, you’ve seen Zoo Cain.

He’s the hirsute, late-middle-aged man on the bar’s throwback disco-light floor, dancing, as they say, like nobody’s watching. Arms flailing, legs rubbery and free, long beard and longer hair flying in abandon. Another Portland character, one to be amused by, but certainly not to get too close to. At least that’s what Portland filmmaker Reginald Groff thought when he first saw the man called Zoo twirling on the dance floor.

Groff and the woman he was dancing with would “dance around him for the longest time,” he said. “Zoo dances like a madman, all over the place. He’s this charismatic wild man, like a jungle man. People think he’s homeless, that he’s this alcoholic, druggie dude. I made that assumption myself. Then I talked to him. And I discovered he is this cool guy with an amazing life.”

And then Groff spent four years making a movie about him.

“Peace, Love, and Zoo” will have its Maine premiere on Thursday at Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland, the 68-minute film a product of those four years of filming – and friendship – between Groff and the man known to his friends as Zoo. Groff, founder of the successful, Munjoy Hill-based Groff Video (groffvideo.com) has been making largely commercial films for three decades. Meeting Zoo Cain opened Groff up to new possibilities — something of a regular occurrence when Zoo’s around, according to Groff.

“I had originally intended to focus on a number of older people who were regular dancers at Bubba’s,” said Groff, “but, as I got to know Zoo, his story took on a life of its own. I found out about his art, about him leading eight Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, about his work in the recovery community. And, apart from all that, I found that Zoo sees life through a different lens, and I wanted to capture that through my own lens. I wanted to see somebody’s story unfurl, rather than them coming to me, or me coming up with a project. For four years, it was just me and my camera and Zoo — not worrying about money or about where the story was going to go.”

Photos by Reginald Groff Scenes from "Peace, Love, and Zoo" about Portland artist Zoo Cain.

Scene from “Peace, Love, and Zoo” about Portland artist Zoo Cain.

Cain has been sober for about as long as Groff has been a professional filmmaker, having completely changed the course of a life of drugs and alcohol that made his nickname more than accurate, according to those who’ve known him. Now, Cain is a professional artist (zoocain.com), a Portland fixture who leaves socks for the homeless in winter and art on the roof of his apartment building for the Maine Med chopper pilots to see as they ferry their patients overhead. He’s also a tireless and almost revered figure in the Portland recovery community, whose dedication to helping others who, like himself, fight the daily war against addiction saw a recent health crisis send shockwaves through those who’ve come to respect and depend on him.

“I took away a lot from getting to know Zoo and making this film,” Groff said, “but one of the main things is his love and dedication to service, to helping other people. Zoo says yes to people, something I am trying to take to heart, as well as the commitment to real work. Some artists, some people, they dabble, but he is just nonstop.”

Groff credits his partnership with his subject with changing his own life for the better, although in ways that are, like Cain himself, hard to define. “Zoo’s a very Zen-ful type of guy,” Groff explained. “He has these little witticisms, ‘Zoo-isms,’ I call them. I’ve definitely applied some Zoo logic into the way I look at things, I think. I’m a fairly calm and gentle person, not a very emotional guy, but he’s definitely helped me think of things from other perspectives. We’ll have little debates and always come to terms in the middle somewhere. You can have real conversations with Zoo.”

The film, which is screening at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the Nickelodeon, talks to the people who’ve come to know, and in some cases depend on, Zoo Cain. Their admiration for this Portland mainstay is combined with Cain’s own words and glimpses inside his cluttered apartment/studio, where his always vibrant, color-saturated art hangs on every available surface. Groff, whose “Peace, Love, and Zoo” recently took the Best Feature Documentary award at Germany’s Around International Film Festival, said that Cain is typically enigmatic in his reaction to the film’s impending release.

“He worries; he has his ups and downs. His art hasn’t been selling, but he still works like there’s no tomorrow. I tell him that the film might help his work start selling again, and he’s very skeptical about that. He’s had some health problems. But Zoo’s a complex man. Any number of aspects of his life would have made a great film: His dancing, his painting, his rehab work and his personal history. Zoo’s ringtone is the Beatles’ ‘Help,’ and hundreds of people can attest to that attribute of his. There are a lot of different films here. Luckily, I found this dude who was just a wonderful subject for a film. And who was a great friend.”

“Peace, Love, and Zoo” screens at the Nickelodeon Cinema on Thursday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Portland filmmaker Reginald Groff will be on hand at each screening. And look for the film at this year’s Emerge Film Festival (emergefilmfestival.org), where there will be a special Zoo-themed party, featuring Cain’s favorite local band, The Substitutes. And, one hopes, some of Cain’s signature dance moves.

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