Dogs and cats living together! Not quite at joint film fest

NEW YORK — The creator of a film festival celebrating dogs has taken a surprising step: cats.

But Tracie Hotchner, a pet wellness advocate via books, podcasts and radio shows, isn't going full-on "Ghostbusters" — "dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!" She's screening a medley of shorts about cats on Saturday in New York, then will take her feline fest on the road, followed by her 3rd annual NY Dog Film Festival on Sunday.

To be clear. This isn't one of those internet-cutesy fests like the cat meme-heavy one at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. While some of the selections are humorous, these are films made by actual filmmakers, as opposed to people looking to go viral with their pets as video props.

The dog fest, Hotchner said, grew out of the social media popularity of pets.

"I'm not a fan of animal videos," she explained. "I find that animal videos online tend to have a shaming quality. It's just not my cup of tea. I'm celebrating the relationship with humans, the bond."

For both cats and dogs, some of the films are scripted, some animated and some are documentaries, like the one by Mary Zournazi, "Dogs of Democracy." Her 58-minute film highlights the life of a street mutt in Athens named Loukanikos, who became a four-legged symbol of the anti-austerity protests in Greece after showing up on the front lines and facing down authorities alongside the humans.

Zournazi, who teaches sociology in New South Wales, Australia, knew nothing about the dogs until she first arrived in Athens in 2014.

"It was a really tense time because of the austerity measures," she said from Australia. "The crisis was in full swing. I fell in love with the dogs immediately. They led me to think about that relationship with the people who take care of them."

Zournazi's project is as long as these films get. Some are as short as a minute. All are intended to inspire, Hotchner said from Bennington, Vermont, where she lives.

"I'm a little allergic to cute," Hotchner said. "My universe is all about education."

There are no awards, but her dog fest has been selling out since 2015, she said. Tickets were selling well for all slates heading into the weekend at the School of Visual Arts, which has a 530-seat theater.

"Many people have never been to a film festival. They're not trying to see the next Martin Scorsese. The first year was word of mouth and people were flying in," Hotchner said.

So why add cats? And why on separate days?

"It's sort of a merger but it's a schizophrenic merger," Hotchner joked. "Cats are not little dogs. And cat people aren't necessarily dog people."

She said she started with dogs "because it honestly didn't cross my mind that there could be a decent movie about a cat." Hotchner was pleasantly surprised when she went in search of film fodder.

In the 8-minute "Scaredy, the Cat," for example, New York City filmmaker Markie Hancock celebrates the life of a feral cat taken on to be a ratter at some public clay tennis courts in Riverside Park. The problem was she turned out to be scared of rats — and most people, yet she has forged a close bond to a small handful, going so far as to wait for some to show up at their regular times.

Hancock stumbled on Scaredy while making a longer film about Dorian Rence, a violist for the New York Philharmonic who cares for a feral cat colony in some train tunnels not far from the tennis courts.

"Most of the people who care for Scaredy don't even play tennis," Hancock said in an interview. "But they all go down there to feed and take care of her. I love that free exchange with no commerce involved, no technology involved. It's people in a public space who are connecting with each other. I think animals really just bring us together."

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