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A Frame Can Be a Cage: Animals on Screen at MIFF 2016
They call her trouble, a thief, the neighbourhood nutcase. She’s a jealous housewife renowned for beating on the prettier girls who cross her husband’s path – though she’s often spotted cuddling up to men from her block. She aspires to a life of luxury, but isn’t above eating off the ground. Psycho is a black-and-white street cat who, along with her “husband” – known by locals as Osman Pasha, who sports strikingly similar markings to his trouble-and-strife – is one of the many feline stars of Turkish documentary Kedi.
If lolcats taught us anything, it’s that humans are fixated by animals on screen: the internet practically exists just to host iPhone videos of cats knocking things off coffee tables. Unlike viral videos or that one friend’s pet-heavy Snapchats, however, three MIFF 2016 titles – Kedi, Unlocking the Cage and Bugs – delve far deeper by examining how non-humans fit in our anthropocentric world, and the sometimes-inhuman ramifications of our relationship with animals.
The cats of Kedi saunter down Istanbul’s backstreets, direct to the hearts and minds of empathetic residents like director Ceyda Torun. She blends linear vignettes of the cats going about their everyday business with the observations, analysis, and psychological projections of unnamed locals. Shot close to the concrete with a languid camera, Kedi captures the distinct personalities of Psycho, Osman, Deniz, Rat Catcher and others (with a little help from their human friends).
Reclining on café chairs and market canopies, the feline fraternity – who have meandered around Istanbul for millennia – is considered animate architecture. Locals wax lyrical about the cats’ aptitude for everything from pest control to absorbing negative energy. “That’s why we had them on boats!” says a man caring for a Styrofoam box of kittens on the marina.
In a predominately Islamic city, this philosophical approach to cats’ presence also leads to questions of religion. “Cats can see God,” an elderly man says, offering a possible explanation as to why some humans worship the divinity of felinity. “The love of animals is a different kind of love,” says another gentleman – an affection that resides for some in cats’ wildness, and for others in their perceived humanity.
When the cats are seen communicating with other cats, though, they use an entirely different set of gestures, expressions and sounds than in their encounters with people. “Just as you notice the cat, the cat notices you,” a woman passing by remarks. It makes you wonder if cats are meowing frustrations about the overgrown apes around them who are always asking questions with obvious answers.
While Kedi leverages the cute factor generated by our anthropomorphism, Unlocking the Cage reveals some of its hairier consequences. Seminal North American documentarians DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus here augment their political cinema, following on from films like Town Bloody Hall (1979) and The War Room (1993). Trailing animal rights lawyer Steven Wise, they chart the fall and rise of his Nonhuman Rights Project.
Wise is fighting to have the American judicial system recognise limited personhood rights for animals like chimpanzees, elephants and cetaceans, all of whom display intelligence, cultures, and social mores comparable to those of humankind. In their natural habitats, apes are empathetic, self-conscious, self-determining beings. But when they’re kept at upstate truck stops and amusement parks, like chimps Tommy and Merlin are, they behave like depressed prisoners. We see them performing self-harm, their health rapidly deteriorating.
Gently questioning the humans who treat their pet chimps “like children” (while locking them in one-square-foot cages), Wise’s nonchalant tone mirrors Hegedus and Pennebaker’s signature observational style. Unlike Kedi’s quirkier manner, Unlocking the Cage’s fly-on-the-wall tone affords the audience space to evaluate their own belief system – space we see physically denied to incarcerated animals. Yet Wise is politely ridiculed in courts, on talk shows, and via online forums for his progressive ideas (supported by decades of scientific research).
Both Kedi and Unlocking the Cage consider our legal, ethical and social responsibility to be the voice for non-human beings. Why can we willingly accept that cats have a plethora of humanlike qualities, while wilfully ignoring the autonomy of our closest animal relatives? When it comes to human reasoning, what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander – or in this case, what’s good for the cats isn’t always good for the great apes, even though we share 98% of our DNA with the latter.
The extent to which we can anthropomorphise a species, on and off screen, significantly affects our emotional connection to them: some animals are our family, some are our friends, and some are our food. Sustainability documentary Bugs assures its audience that eating animals – insects, specifically – is a “very human thing to do”. While examining issues of food distribution and “deliciousness”, this seemingly light-hearted documentary provokes questions about Western ideals of property, power and privilege: a trifecta that largely separates humans from animals.
Ben and Josh are researchers from the Nordic Food Lab, who jet between developing communities with a when-in-Rome approach to edible entomology. Whether it’s witchetty grubs in the Northern Territory or edible ants known as niñito (‘little boys’) in Mexico, there’s nothing these gastronomic hotshots won’t gob – even if it means destroying an insect colony’s ecosystem in the process.
When prospecting for the highly aggressive Japanese giant hornet, Ben and his crew don head-to-toe protective clothing to defend against the wasp’s potentially lethal injection. Chef Roberto Flore is dismissed for suggesting that the simpler solution is just to leave them be. Ben doesn’t consider that insect life isn’t his to take – or, at least, director Andreas Johnsen doesn’t show this. Instead he warns against internet hyperbole about venomous hornets, before smashing their home with a hammer.
Later, at a convention for those with a vested interest in edible insects, Ben chats with a sales rep peddling cat food supplemented by fly protein. “If it’s good for the cat, it’s good for the fly … Oh, no. It’s not good for the fly,” he giggles. Humans may not be apex predators – as much as we like to believe that our minds and money make this so – but we’re hardly peak empaths, either. We don’t always notice how a frame can be a cage.