Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SIFF '13 Review: 'Furever'

Our pets are full-fledged members of the family. For many of us, they’re as close to children as we ever plan to have. We watch them do all manner of stupidly cute things, occasionally dress them up in demeaning holiday costumes, and share our entire lives with them. We know going in that, odds are, we’re going to outlive any domesticated animal we bring into our home, but we push this to the periphery and ignore it like we ignore death as whole.

There are times, however, when death is impossible to disregard. What happens to us when our beloved companions die? That’s the question that lies at the heart of Amy Finkel’s moving new documentary Furever. The film looks to examine the psychological and physiological impact of the loss of a pet.

Furever explores the wide ranging lengths pet owners go to memorialize their furry—and occasionally scaly—friends. Options range from standard fare, like headstones, caskets, and cremation, to monuments, taxidermy, freeze-drying, and even traditional mummification. Look up a Utah-based cult called Summum for details on this last one. Tattoos are fairly commonplace, as are things like paintings and improvised shrines, but did you know that if you act fast, and have $100,000 to burn, you can get a clone of your pet? If you want, you can even have your pet’s ashes made into diamonds, or put into the load of specially made ammunition. No joke, if you can imagine it, and can pay for it, you can get it done.

Pet death is a growth industry, one of the few that actually made great strides in tough recent economic times, and you can spend as little or as much as you want in order to hold on to the memory of your deceased animals. As outlandish as some of these options are, Furever is never judgmental, choosing instead to let the people give you their reasons in their own words. And while you may not agree with them, would never in a million years take your stuffed beagle for a nightly walk in a stroller, you get it. These actions come from a place of extreme love, and even though they may be a little strange, none of the people interviewed come across as crazy. Okay, the cloning guy is a little off, and the mummy people definitely operate out of a modern day pyramid, but the rest seem rational folks.

Psychologically  and physically speaking, grief is grief. There’s no difference between the human and animal loss, and the real meat of Furever lies in this side of things. As powerful, engaging, and moving as the human stories are—I cried like a baby a multiple times—it’s the clinical side that is the most interesting. You may roll your eyes when people refer to their pets as their babies, but they aren’t far off. It isn’t pure anthropomorphism. When babies are involved, the body releases a hormone called Oxytocin, one of the purposes of which is to perpetuate a close biological bond. This is a chemical common to all mammals, and these connections aren’t species specific. The link between pets and owners, scientifically speaking, is the same as mothers and children.

In the film, multiple psychologists even note that the death of a pet can be felt much more acutely than a human loss. When a loved one dies, people reach out, you’re not expected to be okay, but a grieving over the death of a pet is much more taboo. You’re supposed to step up, power through, be at work the next day, and move forward as if nothing has happened. It isn’t socially acceptable to mourn the death of an animal so deeply—which is why I imagine many of you out there are reading this with some sense of incredulity—so that grief is often pushed down, hidden, and never adequately faced. Like every other human emotion, it is unhealthy not to deal with this kind of grief.

At the present stage of our society, we experience significantly less loss that we did even a few generations ago. Modern medicine and advances in technology prolong life spans to previously unheard of degrees, much more attention is paid to the impact of diet and nutrition, and even the wars we become embroiled in are far less catastrophic, casualty wise, than throughout most of recorded human history.

The movie showed as part of the “Science and Beyond” program at the Seattle International Film Festival. There’s no word on a release at the moment, but if you have the opportunity, definitely check this out. Furever is funny, touching, unique, and a little strange all at the same time. If nothing else, it gives you a glimpse of a world that most people aren’t aware of.

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