Three film festivals in New York this weekend have the usual variety of celebrities, from retiring, reclusive types to ebullient extroverts and extravagant divas. But the stars in the spotlight here have something the luminaries at other festivals don’t: four legs and tails.
These events — the NY Cat Film Festival, the NY Dog Film Festival and the Equus Film Festival (horses) — differ in other respects as much as the species they celebrate. Tracie Hotchner, a Vermont author and radio host, started the dog festival in 2015 and the cat festival last year as small operations. Each is a one-day Manhattan festival of a dozen or so films. (The cat festival, perhaps not surprisingly, arrives first, on Saturday.) Hotchner presents no prizes or filmmaker panels, and often helps amateur filmmakers edit their submissions. “Each has to stand as a work of art,” she said.
Equus, however, has the heft and breadth of a Clydesdale, screening more than 80 films Friday through Sunday in Brooklyn. It also comprises equine art and book showcases, director panels and jury awards (the Winnies). And while all three festivals tour, only Equus has just instituted an on-demand streaming service for its films, which “aren’t made in somebody’s little back room on a laptop,” said Lisa Diersen, an equestrian and former engineer who founded the festival in 2013 and organizes it with Diana De Rosa, a horsewoman and photojournalist. “These are PBS-quality documentaries.” (Equus also shows a few fictional films.)
No one should be surprised, though, that the festivals overlap in tone, theme and even subject. “About 95 percent of horse owners, I’d say, own dogs,” said Diersen, who will show short dog films as well as Ron Davis’s feature “Life in the Doghouse,” about horse trainers who run a canine rescue organization. “But all these stories are heartwarming,” she added. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s dogs or cats or horses.”
The festivals, however, aren’t always as warm and fuzzy as their subjects. Some films court controversy. Hotchner observed that Laura O’Grady’s “Purebred Love,” a dog festival documentary about canine breeding, would probably offend activists who believe that people should acquire only rescued animals.
“I don’t share their anger at all,” she said, adding, “I think it’s important to not just be all politically correct and do-gooding.”
Equus has had its own battles. In 2014, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) picketed when the festival showed a trailer for “The Last Horsemen of New York,” Mary Haverstick and Michele Mercure’s documentary about Manhattan carriage drivers. This year Equus will screen the entire film, which argues that the carriage industry does not mistreat horses. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to eliminate the practice for humane reasons, but the film suggests that some of the opposition actually stems from real estate developers’ desire to acquire the stables’ land.
Although Diersen does not agree with PETA — Equus gives an annual tour of the Clinton Park Stables — “we have our stands,” she said. “We’re against horse slaughter. We want to up adoptions and get horses gelded.”
All three festivals also draw attention to animal abuse. In every city her film programs visit, Hotchner donates part of the proceeds to a rescue organization. Equus, which this year focuses on wild mustangs — their federal land is disappearing — offers the Spotlight Rescue Series, a slate of short films about animal-aid organizations.
Some of the documentaries chronicling cruelty can be hard to watch. In the dog festival, Mike Bulda’s “It Takes an Island: Saving the Aruba Cunucu Street Dog” and Erin Parks’s “Finding Shelter” highlight volunteer humane efforts in countries (Aruba and Bulgaria) where behavior toward strays is indifferent or brutal. But these films show not only rescues but also changing attitudes.
Of course, animals also assist humans. The dog festival features Scott Ransom’s “Lady B’s First Winter: Puppy to Avalanche Dog,” about training a pup for mountain rescues, as well as Yuan Yue’s documentary “Meant to Be,” which demonstrates how a therapy dog has helped a fourth-grade boy master reading.
Equus has similar films, including many about equine therapy. In documentaries like Matt Manroe’s “Honoring Veterans. Honoring Mustangs.” and Leonhard Hollmann’s feature-length “Silent Comrade,” war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder learn to identify and regulate their own emotions by working with horses.
“A dog is always happy to see you,” Diersen said, whereas in equine therapy, “if you have bad energy or you’re in a bad place, that horse wants nothing to do with you, because they’re flight animals. They mirror your behavior. There’s no way to explain how powerful that is.”
Many human-animal encounters benefit both parties. Autumn Payne’s documentary “A Horse, a Convict, a Chance for Change,” focuses on a program in which prison inmates train mustangs for adoption. “They’re wild,” says Chris Culcasi, who stole cars while addicted to methamphetamine. “So am I, in a lot of ways.”
A different but just as strong bond forms in “Feral Love,” a highlight of the cat festival. This documentary by Markie Hancock follows the yearslong efforts of Dorian Rence, a violist for the New York Philharmonic, to care for three feral cats in Riverside Park. Rence, whose father was bipolar, exhibits a tender forbearance toward these equally erratic creatures.
“She’s in the last movement of her life,” Rence says of Magnificat, the final feline survivor, whom she struggles, against all odds, to take home.
Such films inevitably enlighten and entertain. Just don’t forget to bring tissues.