Rukus film maker Brett Hanover: “Furry is a collective art project”
by Patch O'Furr
Watch free online! Public release was announced yesterday with links to reviews and more. Now the director tells how it grew.
See Rukus now at www.rukusmovie.com, or NoBudge on October 17th. “A hybrid of documentary and fiction, ‘Rukus’ is a queer coming of age story set in the liminal spaces of furry conventions, southern punk houses, and virtual worlds”. The person named Rukus was a furry artist who committed suicide, but left many memories and mysteries. His friendship with film maker Brett Hanover (bretthanover.com) inspired this movie. Please share it to other fans and indie movie lovers to support it like the way it was made.
Brett Hanover is a filmmaker and youth media educator from Memphis, TN, whose work explores outsider art, mental health, and queer fan communities. His documentaries and collaborative narrative film projects have been exhibited at venues including the SXSW Film Festival, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and the Cinémathèque Française. Brett received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an MFA from the University of Illinois.
(Patch:) Hi Brett, Rukus is a hard movie to summarize in a few words. It doesn’t sit comfortably in any genre, which I think is a strength. It colors outside the lines, which is how furries work as a fandom and source. Your sources go back to the early-mid 2000’s, so it must have taken a lot of processing to make it current and vital for watchers. Can you explain your concept for the movie? How do you feel about it after spending so long to complete it?
(Brett:) The way I thought about the movie shifted several times over the 8 years (yikes) I was working on it. Before there was a movie, there was just an archive, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. Rukus took his own life in 2008, leaving me with all our unfinished projects, plus all the online traces of him I could track down. I spent the winter going through this material, and felt the need to study the records of my own life in the same way.
When you grow up online, you leave behind a very thorough record of where you came from – where you got your ideas, how your friendships formed, how you became who you are. Reading through my past was personally necessary for me at the time. I was 20, and it was a good time to confront some parts of myself I didn’t like, and see where I was going.
A few years into production, I had a rough idea of what the movie was about – something about wounds, infection, intimacy, and the in-betweeness of virtual worlds and hotels – but I didn’t really know how to explain it to anyone. Sometimes I would talk about it politically, as a movie about neurodiversity and LGBTQ+ youth, or get philosophical about it, which was not a good look.
I saw the movie transform creative energy from Rukus, through you, to an audience. Rukus isn’t here to tell his story, but the movie uses multiple approaches to tell parts of his and yours. How challenging is it to tell a very personal story without falling in so far that people won’t get it?
In production, the movie became my sandbox, little world to live inside, a lot like Rukus’ “Aira’s End” paracosm. I would write a scene based on an unresolved issue in my personal life, reenact it with the actual people involved, and if we had a breakthrough in the process, I’d have to rewrite the scene. At first this was just an interesting way to make a movie, and then it felt genuinely therapeutic – but by the end it felt dissociative. (Note to self: work on the problems in your sex life, so you can write a scene about Brett working on the problems in his sex life.)
To answer your question, though, a lot of this material never made it into the final cut. It was important to go through this process, but I wasn’t trying to make anyone sit through my autobiography – the goal was always to tell a bigger story.
I like the word “paracosm” — it reminds me of “parasocial”, the relationship fans can have to their object of affection, and how it can bring out their own creativity. It also reminds me of the word “pentimento” — under-layers in art that sometimes wear through to show previous forms. How does it feel to have your movie watchable in a final form? How have audiences reacted in touring since 2018?
It feels liberating to finally step outside the project, and to let it have a life of its own. So far, people’s reactions have been really gratifying. It premiered at SF Indie Fest, and a lot of furries showed up to support the film (including Videowolf, who directed the excellent doc “Fursonas,” and Patch O’Furr, a noted fascist-fighting rave dog).
Rukus’ partner Sable saw the movie at SXSW, and I shared it with some of his other friends at FWA and Furpocalypse. None of them found it easy to watch, but they were so supportive of how it turned out, and there was a lot of love at those screenings.
Of course, it’s not a movie for everyone, and there are people who will think its too emo and arty, or too lo-fi, and that’s ok. But since I started screening the film, I’ve met so many people in this very particular niche, who felt seen by this film in a new way. After years and years of privately obsessing over this project, it’s a great feeling to remember that I made it to connect with other people.
Can you say more about connecting with others? It’s more than just a limited-audience “fandom movie”, so how do you relate with furries?
Another thing that transformed over the life of the project was my own relationship with furry. Like a lot of people, I started out with an excuse – “Oh, I’m just here because I’m working on this project…” I think that’s one reason I became so fascinated by Rukus as a teenager – documentary filmmaking gave me a justification to explore the fandom vicariously through him.
Of course, eventually, you find yourself tripping at a convention, cuddling a stranger while he shows you mesmerizing illustrations of neon paws on his phone, and you realize you’ve crossed the event horizon… Still, because of how I initially approached the fandom, there’s a part of me that will always feel a little like an outsider.
That piece of me was useful, I think, because I stayed hyper-aware of how I was representing the community. There’s better representation now, but when I found the fandom in 2005, the media had never touched it without fucking up.
It’s interesting to hear you felt like an outsider to this subculture before, but the movie gives such intimate views about the people in it. It reminds me of how many furries come from having deep private fantasy worlds, before they discover there’s other people who daydream the same way. How does your movie express that personal spark or sense of community?
In an earlier email, I called furry a “collective art project,” and you asked what I meant. This is part of the reason I’ve always wanted to release the movie online, in the public domain.
When I was first turning Rukus’ Livejournal and my best friend’s AIM logs into a script, I felt weird about taking ownership of the material. My own words, even, contained 1,000 trademarked pop-culture influences. I thought of what I was doing as remix, not authorship. How could I copyright that?
Of course, artists need to make a living, and there’s nothing wrong with selling a movie, or charging for a comic, a fursuit, or a commission. But in the early days of furry, people would trade sketchbooks and Xerox their zines, and I think this spirit still animates the fandom.
When all is said and done, everything goes back to the furry creative commons. So if I can pull a movie out of this mix, make it cheaply, and let it get swallowed up again – that’s exciting to me.
When I’m feeling idealistic, I picture furry as a fandom that liberated itself from the entertainment industry, turned into an art movement, and took off running for the woods. Isn’t it obvious that we’re a pack? No dogma, no clear identity, no center and no periphery – a collective style influencing a thousand artists, and a thousand individual influences feeding back to the evolving style. It’s not just cooperation. We’re taming each other.
Furry is queer- and sex- positive, but I think there’s something sexual happening here that goes beyond the bedroom. When you have a bunch of artists seducing each other, living their fantasies, bonding over their differences, bootstrapping a new culture – that’s electric. I think furry grabbed hold of me and made a movie, and I hope my movie sparks something even stranger in others. (And now I’ll get off my furry soapbox. Thank you.)
How would Rukus the artist feel about the movie?
I could say we’ll never know, but I’d be lying. I have no doubt that he would be fucking thrilled. Not because the movie tells his story perfectly (it’s fictionalized), and not because it realizes his worldbuilding project (it’s my interpretation). He’d find it hilarious that people are talking about him, and paying good money to go to film festivals to watch him mess around at a convention.
He was larger-than-life, loved to be the center of attention, and always embellished his stories – he might have been an up-and-coming fashion model, or he might have been discovered by an important filmmaker in Memphis… There was a dark side to this kind of performance, too – it was a way to mask his insecurity, his fear of invisibility, and his true self. It was always both, I think. But I think he would find it completely appropriate that someone made a movie about him, and he’d love the attention.
Can you say a little about your work and life, and being a movie maker?
A little about me – I grew up in Memphis, went to my first furry con in 2005, and in one way or another I’ve been working on this project ever since. (Which is unsettling.)
I started making films as a teenager, when I got involved with a DIY film/indymedia group here called the Memphis Digital Art Cooperative. The co-op was formed right around 2000, when digital video became affordable, and it was a place where a lot of young artists were making experimental work – gay coming-of-age stories, performance art, and extremely raw personal documentaries. I was the 15 year old suburban kid who hung around and sometimes acted like a little shit.
Two of the other youngest filmmakers there, Alanna Stewart and Katherine Dohan, ended up becoming my main collaborators (when I was less of a little shit). We made another feature together at the same time we were making Rukus – a high-school-satire-screwball-comedy-feminist-fairy-tale called What I Love About Concrete.
Now that I’m back in Memphis, after a few years in grad school in Illinois, we’re making another multi-genre disasterpiece – Space Submarine Commander, a sci-fi-western-musical-comedy about access to abortion in the south. Feminist politics, with vomiting puppets. I’m in the process of building our cockpit set, which I think is a fan film right of passage.
Making films with your friends is an awesome way to melt politics into a silly fun genre mashup. What’s it like to get by as an artist, but try to make art with purpose and community?
Luckily, we’re not trying to make any money with our projects. I finished Rukus by working slowly, for very little money, with the people and resources I had around me. For Concrete we did some crowdfunding, and for Space Submarine Commander we were fortunate enough to receive some small grants. It’s all at a DIY scale, but I’m making the films I want to make, about things that are important to me, with the people I want to work with. And I mean, we have jobs. I work at a non-profit that manages public art for the City of Memphis – things like murals, sculptures in parks, art in libraries, etc.
It’s a great place to be, because a lot of the current conversations about funding public art are things I’m already thinking about – In addition to supporting individual artists and individual works of art, how can we support public, collective creativity?
Can you give more movie details, or even a reason why people need this movie in their lives?
This is a tough question, and I’m worried that if I say anyone needs my movie I’m going to sound pretentious. But I’ll answer the question…
Rukus is a movie about traumatic memories, mental health, fear of your own body, suicide, and dissociation. It’s also a movie about consent, intimacy, survival, love, and creativity. It’s about the rewards of the imaginary worlds we build, and the risks of the virtual worlds we get stuck in – the spaces that help us fuse with others and reshape our identities, and the boundaries that keep us from reshaping the rest of the world. I made this movie for queers and furries and weirdos, and for the kids who grew up roleplaying and should take naturally to shapeshifting – if only someone hadn’t shattered them in two. It’s a movie about a teenager who fantasizes about being a werewolf, but can’t stop washing his hands – and if that immediately makes sense to you, you’ll probably like my movie.
Anyway, I hope my movie finds the people I made it for, and I hope it connects with them in some way. At the very least, I can promise you long-haired boys, AIM nostalgia, and some Lion King references.