When I started working on the documentary feature Fursonas, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Actually, I’m lying already—I had a good idea, but I played dumb for a really long time. While furry fandom has been the subject of many rumors over the years, there are still plenty of people that know nothing about it. If you haven’t already, do a quick image search to familiarize yourself with those hundreds of smiling cartoon animal costumes.
Those are fursuits—they’re made by some members of furry fandom that want to go the extra mile to celebrate an animal identity they’ve created for themselves. For some it’s just a hobby, for others it’s much more. In fact, “furry” means something a little different to everyone involved, so it’s hard to say anything more specific than “people fascinated with anthropomorphic animals”—which doesn’t begin to touch on what this whole scene is really about.
Most people on the outside know furry as “the sex thing”—a notion that makes for a lot of defensiveness in the community, since there are plenty of furries that claim no interest in that side of the fandom. There is a ton of furry porn online, and when you’ve seen some of this stuff first-hand (the fandom is extraordinarily open if you go to the right websites), you may find it difficult to ignore. It’s harder to write off “a few weirdos” in the community when the weirdness seems to be everywhere.
Boomer the Dog, one of the individuals featured in Fursonas. Courtesy of Slamdance
I do believe, however, that there is far more to furry culture than sex. It’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of what the fandom really seems to be about: friendship, creativity, inclusiveness and individuality. I knew when I started this documentary that I would meet people that might disprove stereotypes, and I would meet others that might confirm them. I hoped to get to know the furries as people and tell a strangely relatable tale about outsiders. However, an issue soon arose: How do you avoid sensationalizing when you’re dealing with material that is inherently sensational?
I had an answer: I was going to be objective!
My plan was to interview as many different furries as possible. I didn’t want my subjects to feel that they were being manipulated to talk about one thing or another, so I allowed them to lead the conversation. I did this for two years—meeting some very colorful characters (a man that conducted his entire interview in a raccoon suit in order to protect his anonymity, the CEO of a successful company that makes dildos in the shape of animal penises, a man that tried to legally change his name to Boomer the Dog) and plenty of next-door neighbor types whose furriness may surprise you.
Many furries feel that they have a responsibility to represent the entire fandom, which became an obstacle for me. If something might reflect poorly on furries, my subjects would be hesitant to speak about it. I found myself explaining over and over that all I wanted was their story and that they needn’t feel crushed by the burden of being the furry ambassadors. Still, it sometimes felt that crucial pieces of information were being omitted so as to give the fandom a good public image.
As a documentary filmmaker, when you step into someone’s life, you are asking that person to open up his vulnerabilities to you. In fact, you may come in expecting this, or, worse yet, you come in feeling that this is already owed to you. And why shouldn’t you? You set out to find the truth, after all. But it’s important to put yourself in the subject’s position. Would you tell the truth if you had the same things to lose?
And so, there was one crucial perspective that was missing from Fursonas: my own. Neither my crew nor my subjects knew that I was a furry—that I’d been looking at furry porn every day since I was 12; that I’d amassed an enviable collection of horse, dragon and wolf dildos; or that I met my furry boyfriend on a furry dating website called, ugh, FurFling. But so what? I had convinced myself that it had nothing to do with my movie, since I was free to lead my own life however I wanted. Besides, I had already decided that I was making an objective documentary, so my furry story was to remain mine and no one else’s.
I eventually did tell my crew, which resulted in a conversation about my coming out, and what it would mean if we put that in the film. At first, I didn’t think it was a good idea. The whole reason why I limited my presence was to let the audience decide for themselves how they felt about the furry fandom. If I went ahead and revealed that I’m one of them, it would change everything. I’d no longer be an objective authority—I’d be just another furry. And worse yet—one of the really weird ones.
My efforts to distance myself from the community, of course, were hurting the film. If I wanted my subjects to be honest with me, I would have to be honest with them. Once I outed myself, interviews became much deeper, because I grew to be more comfortable with asserting my own opinions. I would get into heated debates with the furries about the importance of self-expression vs. good public image. I became Dominic the Furry. Filmmaker objectivity was gone. I came to realize that the inclusion of my presence, if treated sensitively, only introduced another furry’s perspective. It didn’t have to be the furry perspective, and it could add another layer to the film’s complexity.
The moment I stepped in front of the camera, however, I lost all of my distance, which was my safety net. Once I involved myself, the big picture became a lot more difficult for me to understand. For people in similar positions, I recommend getting as much help as possible. Make friends with your editor. Christine Meyer was my closest collaborator on this project and she was able to see things clearly when I wasn’t able to. Test screenings can also be very enlightening—try to show the film to people you don’t know personally. Do your best to be a different person in the editing room than you are in your interviews. It’s possible that your film is working toward a greater point, and your onscreen perspective is only part of that.
For two years, I shined a light on other people’s problems while sitting comfortably behind the camera. It’s easy for filmmakers to hide behind that illusion of objectivity. (Apparently, most filmmakers already know that true objectivity doesn’t exist, but it sure took me a long time to figure it out.)
So, documentary filmmakers… should you put yourself in your film?
You already have!
Through the act of making a documentary, you’re asserting your view on the audience. Even if your opinion is as neutral as “there is no answer,” it’s still your opinion. Maybe it’s more fashionable these days for filmmakers to stay behind the camera, but I’d argue that those who do show themselves, their reactions, their biases and their mistakes upfront are doing something very important. They are reminding the audience that they are watching a movie made by another flawed human being.
As I go out into the world and answer questions promoting this film, I can’t help but feel that things have come full circle. So much of this almost feels like a test for me: How much personal truth am I able to face? Now, I’m the furry being asked questions about the fandom. I told so many of my subjects not to worry about this burden of being the furry ambassador, but it’s tough being totally honest when I’m in their position. Oh well. I guess I am the representative, for better or worse. And I’m continuing to be tested in ways I never imagined. For example, my grandma now knows about my horse dildo collection. If you’re looking to explore the truth, be ready to go all the way! MM
Fursonas screens with ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club on March 20, 2016 at 8 p.m. (ArcLight Hollywood) and March 30, 2016 at 8 p.m. (ArcLight Chicago).