Fursonas and Furries: A Tail of Two Docs (Part 1)
by Pup Matthias
(Note from Patch: thanks to the site’s valued long time contributor, Pup Matthias. As site manager, I don’t put a leash on writing, and this came from his self-motivated effort. Therefore, I’ll add a disclaimer that Matthias is sole author, independent from my previous posts and relationships or understandings with others. I had considered doing a followup about poorly-done mainstream Fursonas coverage called “furry is not a cult,” but then decided that enough conversation was already happening. Uncle Kage, Dominic, Eric Risher and Matthias are all friends to me and all of them are doing great things for this community. If you only get to hear part of the story, let that say the rest. – P)
This has been an incredible year for the Furry Fandom. Zootopia crossed over a billion dollars, fur con attendance continues a healthy rate of growth, more positive news about the fandom has been coming out, and Furry Network has entered the Furry website game. And we’ve got not one, but two documentaries exploring the fandom made by people inside the fandom itself. Yet it’s the last part that has brought on some of the biggest debates in the fandom.
Since the release of the two documentaries, Fursonas and Furries, there has been a lot of praise and criticism towards both, although Fursonas has been getting the more vocal criticism of the two. Which isn’t surprising. Fursonas features a lot of topics that depending where you stand, can be seen as exposing an issue most would rather hide, or a sensational attack that continues the negative image of the fandom we’ve been working for years to get over.
The reason? In the second half of Fursonas, we see director Dominic Rodriguez get pulled over by Anthrocon staff, and he was subsequently banned from Anthrocon for breaking their media policy. The rest of the doc then paints the con chair, Uncle Kage, in a negative light criticizing his practices both with media relations, how Furries should interact (or not) with the media, and the way he “censors” certain figures and topics to make the fandom more acceptable to the mainstream.
Now to make things clear, I like Fursonas. I like that it brings forward issues I believe we should discuss and come to terms with. I think some of the criticism doesn’t come so much from the film itself as that it’s a film the fandom didn’t expect. I’ll go into detail about that later, but this article is not a Fursonas defense piece. It’s about exploring the topics and reactions that have become clouded with all the drama surrounding the two films. I love that we have two Furry docs that explore two different aspects of the fandom. I’ve even talked to both directors, who wish to express their own thoughts about everything going on. This isn’t trying to end the conversation. It’s to add more and make sure what we debate about is what needs to be debated about.
So let’s first examine the main issue, Dominic Rodriguez being banned from Anthrocon. This bit of information alone has been the deal breaker on whether people should watch the doc. It’s as if because Anthrocon saw fit to ban a film about Furries, then it can’t be worth watching in the first place. When you watch the film, you see the topic of being banned brought up, but also the main reason for them to be banned was because they didn’t agree to a Production Agreement, which would have given some form of creative control over the film to Uncle Kage.
People have debated how much of that statement is true. When I first started to look more into this story, I knew we needed to see what that contract was. I reached out to Dominic and asked if he could share the document or emails showing what was discussed. Unfortunately he could not give me the exact docs or emails, because as he put it:
[DR]: Information that we release regarding the film has to pass through multiple channels, including entertainment lawyers. I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to share the entire Production Agreement, but I am able to quote relevant details word-for-word, so at least that’s something. …the contents of the emails are between the filmmakers, Uncle Kage, and lawyers.
Here are the applicable word-for-word specifications from the Production Agreement sent by Uncle Kage that Dominic’s team declined.
“While at Anthrocon, Producer agrees: (1) not to film sexually graphic images, (2) not to engage attendees in the topics of sex and sexuality, and (3) not to define Furry Fandom as a sexual community. Producer agrees any discussion of sex and sexuality that comes up within the production will be handled with maturity and put within the proper context. Documentary may, to some degree, discuss the topics of sex and sexuality on subsequent film shoots outside of Anthrocon.”
“Producer understands that Grantor will allow use of Anthrocon footage in Documentary provided that Grantor is allowed to view the final cut of the full-length Documentary film, in its entirety, prior to giving permission. Producer agrees to mail a copy of the final cut on a digital media format (DVD) to Anthrocon’s mailing address in order for Grantor to view.”
“Producer agrees that Grantor is allowed to request any Documentary segments or footage to be edited or otherwise altered, should Grantor have a reason to make this request. Producer understands that this decision is the sole discretion of Grantor. In the event Grantor makes such a request, Grantor shall provide a) a description of the specific footage the Grantor deems unsuitable; b) the time in the film where this material occurs; c) an explanation for why the material is objectionable; and d) a suggestion for how to fix the problem (shorten a shot, use alternate footage, remove the audio, etc).”
“Producer agrees to work with Grantor in order to edit Documentary to the point in which the final production is acceptable to Grantor. When Grantor and Producer have agreed to a final cut of Documentary, Grantor will sign an additional Release Contract which relinquishes said footage from control of Grantor. The Documentary will then be freely used for commercial and entertainment purposes at the discretion of Producer, provided that the final cut of the film remains unaltered after Contract is made. Any advertisements or marketing materials for the film will only contain the footage or imagery that is present on the agreed-upon final cut of Documentary.”
“If a suitable edit of Documentary cannot be fashioned, then Grantor can terminate Anthrocon’s involvement with the film. If Grantor wishes to terminate involvement, then Producer agrees to delete all footage related to Anthrocon or associated subjects from the final cut of Documentary. If Grantor chooses to terminate involvement, Anthrocon will not be mentioned in any manner during the entirety of the completed Documentary, nor on any advertising or marketing materials related to the film. Grantor can choose to terminate involvement with the film at any point up until the final cut is approved by Grantor in the form of a signed Release. Upon signing the final Release, Grantor and Producer have both fulfilled all requirements which are hereby agreed upon.”
Looking at this, it’s not hard to see why Dominic refused to sign the agreement. The next question: How did it lead to the current state of affairs? Well that’s simple. They broke AC’s media policy. We see in the film itself an AC security member pulling them aside while talking to a fursuiter. But they filmed at AC before, as the project developed from a student thesis film to a fell fledged feature, and never got pulled before. As Dominic explains:
[DR]: There’s no doubt about it: we definitely broke the rules. How we came to break the rules is a little more complicated. We filmed footage for Fursonas during Anthrocon 2012, 2013, and 2014. All three years, I was a registered attendee, as were the couple crewmembers that accompanied me. One thing that’s important to note is that this movie was not always a “real movie” with a production studio and a distribution company and all these things. Originally, it was a crew of five college kids who were looking to make a short film for their senior thesis project.
I had never been to a furry convention before, and I thought it would be fun to register, walk around, talk to furries casually and off-the-record, and film a little b-roll that I could look back at later. This was for research purposes more than anything else. We filmed footage of furries walking around the convention and I showed this to the rest of my crew to see if they saw potential in the project. We all liked the idea and decided that summer that this was going to be our documentary.
I didn’t have to think about Anthrocon for a while after that, because the original 12-minute short film that I made for college actually doesn’t contain any footage from AC. In 2013, we had all graduated and decided that we wanted to expand Fursonas into a feature-length film. That year, we filmed nothing but b-roll at the con. We didn’t do any interviews or get into anyone’s business—we just filmed wide shots of furries walking around.
At this point, I wasn’t familiar with all the specifics of the media policy, but I assumed that it applied to more commercial projects. In my mind, I wasn’t “the press,” and I didn’t have an angle. I was just getting drunk with my filmmaker friends on a Saturday night, filming the furries for this eventual project that would probably go nowhere.
In 2014, we were taking the production more seriously. That’s when we got into trouble. Aside from filming the usual b-roll, we conducted one brief interview with Diezel Racccoon, who we had been following for the past two years. He had agreed to the interview, and we were talking with him and his parents, who were visiting Anthrocon for the first time.
In the middle of the interview, a Dorsai member asked if we had media badges, which we didn’t. He then told us that we were not allowed to be filming people and escorted us to a back room. I asked him why we needed to get media badges when we weren’t “the press,” but just a group of kids who were filming something independent. He said that because we had professional equipment, that was what made us different from other registered furries making their films. I think that when he saw me holding a microphone in front of Diezel’s face, he assumed I was approaching furries that might not want to be interviewed.
In any case, we went to the back room, and I had to show a Fursonas trailer on my phone, so they could see what the project was about. After viewing the trailer, the person that I showed it to (Xydexx Squeakypony) was concerned by Boomer The Dog’s presence, and said that we would have to talk to Uncle Kage about the film. Unfortunately, the chairman was busy, so they released us and we never filmed at Anthrocon again.
What followed was a back-and-forth between us and Uncle Kage via email. I had wanted to interview him, but we could not agree on terms. A big source of tension was how Anthrocon was going to be featured in the film—would we be allowed to show footage from Anthrocon? Would we be allowed to even mention Anthrocon? Who does this footage really belong to?
It was 2014 when I realized what an issue this was becoming. I wanted to explore furry in a nuanced way, examining controversies and things like that with humanity. But Anthrocon is so protective of its image (and the image of furries in general) that I knew I would not be able to work with them on this. If they needed to approve the final cut of the film, and they were already getting antsy just by seeing Boomer in his paper fursuit for a few seconds, how could I hope to do anything other than a PSA with their consent?
A lot of people think they’re “busting” me when they point out that we violated the media policy. It’s true—we filmed at the convention and then distributed the film without showing the final cut to the AC Board of Directors. I didn’t set out to break the rules, but I ended up realizing that I needed to break them if I wanted to keep my artistic integrity intact. This film reflects my biased opinion of the fandom. I think that the need to present a “good image” is standing in the way of individual expression. I use filmmaking and furry fandom to express myself, which is more important to me than anything.
We broke the rules, but we didn’t break the law. This is how many documentaries are made. They attempt to tell some kind of truth and they often will have to break rules in order to do this. How could I protest Anthrocon’s media policy in a film while getting the permission of Anthrocon to do so? That would be like Blackfish asking Seaworld for permission. I know, I know—that’s probably a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea.
A lot of people say that it’s unfair that I was banned from Anthrocon, but I disagree. It was perfectly within their rights to ban me. I broke the rules and I got banned for it. I accept that. People can decide for themselves when they watch the movie if I was justified or not. Honestly, all banning me did was create controversy and help promote the movie anyway.
That is true. Remember that rebellious movie filmed at Disneyworld without Disney’s permission, and all the drama that didn’t happen because Disney did jack about it… Do you even remember what the title of that film is? In fact, one case that kept popping into my mind was the incident that happened when Inside Edition filmed Further Confusion.
I asked Dominic if he felt his situation was in any way similar to Inside Edition.
[DR]: The difference between our situation and Inside Edition is that Inside Edition was denied permission and then filmed secretively. Our filming was never secretive. We didn’t realize that we were breaking the rules until it was too late. It was after that, that I started examining Kage’s Furries in the Media panels and realizing what a huge source of tension media relations has become. Getting escorted away at AC was the jolt I needed to push me in the right direction of figuring out what I wanted to say in Fursonas.
Of course, Fursonas wasn’t the only doc filming at AC. Furries was more of less working around the same time frame. It makes one wonder if the two knew about each other’s existence. But as the director of Furries, Eric Risher, states…
[ER]: Yes, but marginally. I never had any direct contact with Dominic until Furries had been completed. I had heard that he was working on a film (I think I might have seen a mention on FA or Twitter), but the only information I had about Fursonas was what had been posted on social media at the time.
But Furries didn’t get into the same trouble, because they followed AC’s media policy of notifying them in advance what they wanted to do, as required under their Photography and Media Questions in the FAQ section on their website. But Dominic wasn’t aware, as he said; he was not aware of the policy and thought it applied towards more commercial projects. Not to someone who was only trying to make a student thesis film, using the con as b-roll that started to grow over time. Eric went through the same production agreement as Dominic did though.
[ER]: When I approached AC, I sent them a treatment that thoroughly discussed my interests as a filmmaker, including how I intended to incorporate any material filmed at their convention. Our contract with Anthrocon did state that they could make editorial suggestions regarding material filmed specifically at AC, but after reviewing the final cut of the film they chose not to exercise that right and they signed off on the film.
However that wasn’t the same case for Fursonas.
[DR]: What it comes down to is having to send the finished film to the Anthrocon Board of Directors for approval, and how they are able to recommend changes to any material they find objectionable, not limited to the footage at Anthrocon. For instance, if they wanted to take Boomer out of the film, or clarify that he’s “not really a furry,” that’s something they would be able to do. And let’s say I refused to do this—they could insist that all references to Anthrocon (including Uncle Kage), be pulled from the film. The fact is that Anthrocon, Boomer The Dog, Uncle Kage, and everything else are all tangled up in this mess of a situation, and in order to properly explore it, I had to be able to look at all of it, and not feel like I needed to collaborate with Anthrocon in any way.
I think that if Anthrocon was able to approve the documentary, I would not have been able to explore the tension between community and identity in the fandom—at least, not in the brutally honest way that I had hoped to. I see a real problem in the community right now and I wanted to confront that problem. I don’t think that this is something Anthrocon wants to confront.
If you look back at the agreement from Dominic again, it does say that AC can edit any part of the film, while Eric says it only applied toward AC footage only. Anyone who has watched Fursonas can tell you that it looks at controversial people and topics like Boomer the Dog, Chex Fox, Bad Dragon, and the nature of sex in the fandom.
It was when they saw a few images of Boomer in the trailer while AC pulled Dominic aside, that made them nervous what the film would even be about. So Dominic’s explanation of the agreement asking for editorial power over the entire film seems more likely. Not just the AC footage, as Eric said for Furries.
I would not be shocked to learn that if Dominic did agree to AC’s agreement, they would have had to cut out everything featuring Boomer, Chex Fox, Bad Dragon, or sex in general; or make sure to put in many notes about how AC is not connected to them, they don’t represent the fandom at large, or those people aren’t true Furries. Even though none of that is in direct reference to AC. Yet the issue is only brought up when it focuses on Uncle Kage, and moreover when it looks at the bigger issues of identity in the fandom that don’t fit how certain people want the fandom to be seen.
Good documentaries aren’t made to do what you expect. But you’ll have to wait till tomorrow as this article just keeps growing. More words from Eric Risher and Dominic Rodriguez in Part 2.