Two annual film festivals invariably attract passionate ticket buyers, even if they miss chases, explosions, alien invasions or Daniel Craig as a pouting James Bond.
What they do have: whiskers, wildness and no small amount of humor.
It’s the NY Cat Film Festival and the NY Dog Film Festival, returning to Manhattan after a pandemic-induced hiatus. The cat festival, which will be screened at 12 noon on Saturday – Global Cat Day – at the Village East by Angelika theatre, consists of 21 short works lasting approximately 90 minutes in total. The nearly two-hour dog festival, which arrives at the same theater on October 24, features 20 short films. (Pet lovers outside of New York can also see the festivals: They will tour for several months, both across the country and in Canada.)
“I think this is the year of the highest quality, possibly for both,” said Tracie Hotchner, a Vermont author and radio host who founded the dog festival in 2015 and the cat edition two years later. In a phone interview, she explained that in the early days of the lockdown in 2020, “people couldn’t find toilet paper, but they made wonderful movies.”
Not surprisingly, the pandemic can be seen at both festivals. In “Will You Be My Quarantine”, a cat comedy, actress and director Susku Ekim Kaya shows herself and her pet, Lady Leia, in split screen, engaged in typically obsessive lockdown activities such as grooming, watching TV, scrolling cell phones, and calling. via FaceTime. They live harmoniously parallel lives, as the feline protagonists of Jasmin Scuteri-Young’s “Quarantine Diary” and Asali Echols’ “House Cats” lament the constant presence of their owners in human-provided voiceovers.
The subjects of the dog festival, on the other hand, never seem to crave social distancing. “You don’t believe in personal space,” Kyle Scoble tenderly tells Darla, his Labrador retriever-pointer mix, in “The Second Time I Got to Know My Dog,” a documentary that serves as a tribute to how Darla got him to. 2020.
But cats may have a reason for their seemingly aloof demeanor. “If it’s an indoor cat, it’s going through an ongoing state of lockdown,” Kim Best, a director from Durham, NC, said in a phone call.
That observation fuels Best’s “The Great Escape,” in which a cat named Monkey makes concerted efforts to leave the household, even consulting the digital assistant Alexa, where he thumps and meows. In Best’s other festival entry, “Cat Capitalization,” her pet, Nube, turns to the internet to market his artistic talent and thank pretentious — in thought bubbles — mentors like the artists Mark Rothko and Vincent van Gogh. (Nube is missing a piece of an ear.)
Best said she aspired to be “a satire of not only capitalism, but academia as well”.
Such humor is the theme of the cat festival, in which films like Nevada Caldwell’s “Feline Noir” and Priscilla Dean’s “Catfight at the O’Kay Corral” parody old Hollywood clichés.
But while the dog movie slate isn’t without a laugh — David Coole’s animated film “Go Fetch” is a sharp two-minute revenge comedy — it contains much more in-depth explorations of the human-animal bond that previously characterized both festivals.
‘Affection in the Streets’, for example, a Brazilian documentary by Thiago Köche, chronicles the lives of the homeless of Pôrto Alegre, who often take better care of their dogs than they do themselves. The loyal pets also attract concern from passers-by, who often ignore the suffering of the animals’ owners.
“People who like dogs just look past the people,” Hotchner said. “I’d like to see more movies about that because I think it’s the thing we don’t want to watch.”
“The Comfort Dogs” also showcases the power of pet ownership. Created by Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker, an Australian couple living and working in Brooklyn, the film is an excerpt from their feature documentary “We Don’t Deserve Dogs.” The segment focuses on the Comfort Dog Project, which provides pets to young people who were forced to become child soldiers during Uganda’s civil war.
With the dogs by their side, the former soldiers can share “pretty harrowing” experiences, Salleh said in a joint phone call. “The dogs almost become part of the storytelling method itself.”
Another documentary, “Nicola” by Zach Putnam, illustrates how the subject, a yellow lab of Canine Companions, a service program for people with disabilities, not only changed the life of the student who received it. She also taught a strong lesson in faith and sacrifice to the student who had trained her diligently but eventually, in tears, had to give her up.
However, both festivals remind viewers that these animals need humans just as much as humans need them. Hotchner, who hosts the programs like a labor of love — tickets are $20 each — always contributes a portion of each screening’s sales to a related local charity. New York’s Cat Festival will help support Bideawee’s Feral Cat Initiative, while this year’s all dog festival showings will benefit the nonprofits associated with Saving Senior Dogs Week (October 25-31).
“There is a growing awareness,” Covid aside, “that older dogs are wonderful to adopt and the fastest to put to sleep in a shelter,” Hotchner said. In Gary Tellalian’s “Legends of Comedy Share Love for Old Dogs,” you hear this message in a public announcement from celebrities who are seniors themselves: Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and Lily Tomlin, along with Carl Reiner, who died last June at 98.
The plight of dogs who aren’t cuddly puppies is also featured in documentaries such as Krista Dillane, Emma Lao and Dylan Abad’s “Not Broken: Freedom Ride,” about a long journey to transport 53 rescued dogs from Louisiana to an adoption fair for pets in Rhode Island. In “Chino,” another excerpt from “We Don’t Deserve Dogs,” the aging subject, a stray dog in Santiago, Chile, survives simply because concerned residents provide care.
“The mutt culture there is completely different,” Tucker said, adding that the animals are a way of “just bringing an entire community together” — another goal for these festivals.
NY Cat Film Festival
October 16 at the Village East by Angelika, Manhattan; catfilmfestival.com.
NY Dog Film Festival
October 24 at the Village East by Angelika, Manhattan; dogfilmfestival.com.