‘FUREVER‘ is a feature-length documentary that explores the dimensions of grief people experience over the loss of a pet. It examines the sociological evolution of pets in the U.S. today, particularly their position in a family unit, and how this evolution is affecting those in the veterinary profession and death care industry. With interviews from grieving pet owners, veterinarians, psychologists, sociologists, religious scholars, neuroscientists, and the many professionals who preserve a pet’s body for their devastated clientele, or re-purpose a pet’s cremains in unique ways (taxidermy, cloning, mummification, freeze-drying, and many more), ‘FUREVER‘ confronts contemporary trends, perspectives, and relevant cultural assumptions regarding attachment, religion, ritual, grief, and death, and studies the bonds that form between humans and animals, both psychological and physiological.
Sixty-two percent of Americans have a pet, and they spent a total of $52.9 billion on their pets last year. Many judge pet parents who choose to memorialize their dead pets as unbalanced, yet religious or cultural rituals for deceased people often seem unusual to outsiders. How “real” is grief for a dead pet and who decides what kind of grief is acceptable, or appropriate? Rather than pathetic or morbid, these pet parents embody America’s muddled attitudes toward death and dying, touching on our collective fear of aging, and how that fear is shaped by the shifting influences of religion, technology, family, and money.
We talked with ‘FUREVER‘ Director Amy Finkel after the film’s premier screening at the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival. The film screens again on Saturday, June 8, 2013 at Windmill Studios NYC.
For more information & tickets to ‘FUREVER’ at the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival – HERE
You have mentioned that you yourself have grieved over pets. What interested you in pet preservation specifically?
We had many types of animals growing up and I became very attached to them over the years. My parents were huge advocates of animal rescue, so we ended up with all sorts: anoles, rats, dogs, budgies, gerbils (the list goes on). And no matter what the species, I found that I became unbelievably attached to each of them. As a result, I had a very tough time letting go. So when I read the article about people freeze-drying their pets several years ago, I was fascinated by what it was about keeping the body of a dead animal in a lively-looking state that was offering so much comfort to the devastated pet owners. How was it not a constant reminder that their pet was gone? Where did they think the soul had gone, if they believed in that (which I suspected they did)? That was not a discussion in my atheist household growing up. But—and I should mention that I’m not particularly judgmental in general—I never assumed they were crazy, as many do. I totally understood their level of attachment and their inability to let go; I simply didn’t understand why it would offer them comfort. I thought it was peculiar, and potentially destructive psychologically if there were a disconnect there (feeling as though their pet was still alive), but I tied to go into it with an open mind. Freeze-drying certainly would not have offered comfort to me. But I’d often wondered why I was getting so attached to my animals; whether it was projection or perhaps being less tolerant of humans than animals (I did have a lot of human friends growing up too). I figured there had to be some physiological component, which is why I put a whole segment in the film about the biology of the human-animal bond. But yes, for some reason freeze-drying was the perfect jumping off point for an inquiry of all of these questions, and an exploration of grief in general, so I set off to investigate.
For you personally, was the project ever upsetting? Did you find it cathartic in any way?
At first it was very sad to grieve through, essentially, every interview (until I was able to start interviewing more scholars — many of whom, even then, took me through their own personal grief processes). I’m actually now finding that it’s coming back to me in the same way; I’ve become somewhat of a grief counselor to a lot of strangers, which is a bit scary as I certainly don’t have a degree in it! People want to come up to me after screenings and give me short stories they’ve written about the death of their animals or share their grief process. They cry with me. I’ve often heard, “thank you for not making me feel crazy.” I didn’t think the film would be cathartic for anyone who’d just lost a pet, for obvious reasons, but for many it seems to be.
It was the same during filming, but a little tougher because I was trying to play the role of both documentary filmmaker and grief counselor. It just sort of happened that way due to the nature of the subject matter, and it was tough, because I was constantly being forced to think about my own mortality, and about the many animals that had gotten into my heart over the years but were no longer with me. At times it was cathartic for me. Now I feel like I’m becoming a little desensitized. But I was never pretending to feel something if I wasn’t. If I cried with a subject, so be it. I’m not much of a crier, so I went with it if I was overcome with that much empathy and emotion. It probably did help gain some trust between filmmaker and subject, making the scene feel more intimate to the viewer. But it was never contrived and it was such a pleasure to be able to learn from all of these amazing people. While many assume they’re all nuts, I have to say that, if I learned anything through the process, it’s that in our culture, we really don’t understand death; death is so sterile now, so taboo — we don’t talk about it; certainly not in public discourse. Once we got antibiotics in the 1940s, we became less accustomed to it. It was a natural progression. I think most of us avoid the subject (and, thankfully, haven’t had to deal with much of it until much later in life, unlike in earlier eras when people died more frequently, and died much younger). So it was interesting to me that a lot of these people were actually better able to deal with death than most. I became not only intrigued, but also impressed by the way that they were dealing with it. Very few believed that they were cheating death. Mac talks about how he’s had to explain to people that their pet is dead. That’s not the majority; that’s the exception. The majority of these people understood it in a way that I’m not sure I ever will, and whatever their memorialization method, found it offered a great deal of comfort.
As for the process being upsetting; I had the toughest time with people who were keeping their animal alive too long. That’s where I draw the line. I often say, “well you can’t fault these people for loving their pets too much — they’re all doing it out of love.” But you can when it goes into that territory. That was very upsetting for me.
You have interviewed some interesting people with unique stories. Can you go into some detail about how you found your interview subjects? Given how personal (and painful) their stories were, how did you get them to open up? And how have they reacted to the film?
Sometimes the subjects contacted me; sometimes it was through word of mouth from other subjects. That was often the case. A lot of the pet death care community is well connected, so once everyone realized that I was not making a super sensational reality show about them, they started signing on. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the New York Times and Anna Jane Grossman, the writer who did a profile about the film just after my Kickstarter campaign. In fact that would never have come had Kickstarter not been amazingly supportive with the earliest incarnation of FUREVER; I am so grateful to their team for liking the project and promoting it. A lot of press came from that, but specifically the New York Times article, which was instrumental in getting subjects signed on. The article made it clear that this wasn’t a reality TV project, and that I was on the side of the pet owners, and empathetic to what they were going through. I could send that out and anyone would sign on. It was enormously helpful.
As for getting them to open up, that was the easiest part for me, for some reason. Part of it may be that they were never formal interviews, even if I’d memorized some general line of inquiry in my head. They were conversations. And I found that when I opened up with them, and they understood I was on their side and that I wasn’t going to make fun of them (something grieving pet parents often encounter as there’s such a stigma surrounding that type of grief), then they’d open up. Thankfully the subjects who have seen the film (many at this point) seem really happy with the results. They know they’re not being mocked, and they know that ultimately, if there’s any ulterior motive or call to action, it’s to remove that stigma.
I have a wonderful dog named Connor. While watching your film I frequently found myself thinking about his mortality, which really helped me identify with your interview subjects. Have you found that pet owners have had more empathy for your subjects than non-pet owners? In general, have you noticed any differences in the ways the two groups have reacted to the film?
I made the film with a very specific target audience in mind: pet people. I felt that I had to focus it in that way or else it wouldn’t carry the gravity that I wanted it to. I certainly wasn’t trying to preach to the converted (it’s not that type of film), but I figured that only pet lovers would likely enjoy the footage of live animals, which seemed crucial to include alongside the many dead ones. But to my surprise, numerous non-pet people are embracing it. I hadn’t anticipated that. I think they’re particularly drawn to the academic narrative that runs through it, and as a result of that content and the themes therein, they leave (or so I’ve heard), feeling more sensitive to their pet lover friends. Just the other day someone told me that her friend had to put his dog down, and that she’d initially mocked the fact that the pet had become a surrogate child to him, but that she had a new understanding and sensitivity to what he was going through, having watched the film, and that her instinct to mock had dissipated. I was, of course, thrilled. That’s the whole point.
That said, some of the scenes in the film are particularly polarizing. I’m shocked at screenings to see a large group of people in the audience crying, while others are laughing. It happens in every screening. But I can never gauge if it’s, at times, uncomfortable laughter, because it is making people think about mortality in a way with which they’re really rattled. I’m one of those people that has a problem laughing at funerals and bar mitzvahs, so I do understand that reaction too. And that reaction is fine. The film is asking people to confront a number of concepts that one is likely not thinking about regularly, so I’m of the belief that any reaction is fine.
Your film gives voice to people who have taken great comfort from preserving their pets, as well as to people who think it’s unhealthy to do so. Between when you began the project and now, how, if at all, have your views on the subject changed?
Well it’s funny that you asked that, as there are many people in the film who didn’t want to be included in the same film as the subjects who were choosing less conventional methods of memorialization. They didn’t want to be associated with them. And these are people who are working in a fairly eccentric, atypical field. Some of those subjects were the most judgmental. So it was tough to get people to sign on knowing that freeze-drying would also be included, or cloning. But when we discussed it, they also understood that the film couldn’t exclude parts of the larger story. Ultimately, I think most are fine with it. They love having the counterpoint of Sociologist, Dr. Pepper Schwartz. It was very difficult, however, trying to figure out how to make it as unbiased as we could. It was never an even playing field. Most people are coming in assuming the subjects are psychologically unhinged, so I had to temper the counterpoint. As for my views on the subjects, they really haven’t changed. Again, I’m not very judgmental. Rarely did I come across a subject I felt was truly pathological. And even in speaking with the grief counselors, asking them if there were clients who simply couldn’t be helped — they always said that when it went into that pathological realm, it was very rarely someone dealing with the grief over their pet. Usually, at that point, their grief was leftover from losses experienced prior that they’d never addressed.
Have audiences reacted to the film in ways that you were not prepared for? In general, what new ideas and emotions do you want audiences to take away from your film?
I’d love for the stigma attached to the grief experienced over the loss of a pet to disappear, no matter how extreme. From what I’ve heard, most people do not leave the film feeling like they didn’t learn something that might make them rethink their judgments about the subjects. I’m not sure I can ask for anything more than that.
– Interview Prepared By David Teich
About Amy Finkel
Amy Finkel is a designer, photographer, documentary filmmaker, and writer. She is the founder and creative director of Sailor Beware, an agency that specializes in web design and video work. She is an instructor at NYU and Parsons, where she teaches classes in web design and documentary film making. Amy served as a judge for the feature-length documentary division for IDA’s 2009 Documentary Achievement Awards. She has also been a judge for New York Festivals, in their TV documentary division. Amy also acts as a ‘Doctor’ for New York Foundation for the Arts’ “Doctor’s Hours for Filmmakers.” Amy holds an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons, as well as a BA in Theater from Connecticut College. She studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, having been awarded a full scholarship. In 2004, Amy made a documentary about four-string jazz banjo culture entitled “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart: The Banjomaniacs of Guthrie,” which was screened at numerous film festivals and nominated that year for the Pare Lorentz Award by the International Documentary Association. A native of Seattle, Amy lives in Brooklyn, NY.