CAT Film Festival celebrates cats on film

By Brian Belak

It’s arguably the most important development of the last decade, though probably not for furthering the development of society, but for stunting it. It is the cute cat video, the great time-waster of the Internet, holding millions of users hostage on Youtube as they choose one more meow over whatever work they were supposed to be doing at that time.

South Side Projections, working with Chicago Filmmakers, recently held a two-night festival venerating this sacred union of cat and moving image, with screenings first on July 26 near the Chicago Filmmakers office on the north side and then again on July 27 right here in Hyde Park at Café 53.

Featuring short works from artists local and worldwide, including Yvonne Anderson, Joyce Wieland, and three by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, the festival’s program sought to prove that filmmakers’ fascination with cats predates the rise of the Internet age, with the earliest film shown dating from 1965. Almost none of the films are easily available on Youtube, and most can only be seen on the 16mm film projected at the festival.

The Café 53 night, held outside on the back patio of the restaurant, began just as the sun was setting for the day. After a brief introduction from South Side Projections director Michael W. Philips, Jr. and a plug for Hyde Park Cats, towards which some of the suggested donation went, the program was underway.

The films themselves ranged across a variety of subject matters and media, mostly only connected by their common theme of cat. Some were exactly the kind of cat video ubiquitous online today, like JoAnn Elam’s compilation film of cats playing with 16mm film on the floor, while others crafted stories around the cats, often based on interactions with owners. There was animation, experimental collages, and even one filmed performance piece in which a person pretended to be a cat herself.

Due to a “programming oversight” (the films were shown in alphabetical order by director), the three Brakhage films were screened one after another, subjecting the audience to a half-hour of his highly experimental and obtuse style. The only one of his films shown to actually have “cat” in the title, Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm (1998), was also the one to have the least amount of cat in the film, instead being mostly 15 minutes of obscure images from a garden.

However, among the standout works screened was Joyce Wieland’s Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), which uses the story of rats escaping from an American cat jail to allegorically tell of revolution and critique the United States’ global presence, hot topics during the tumultuous 1960s. Between the scenes of the rats escaping and creating a new life in a Canadian millionaire’s mansion are intercut sudden shots of South American revolutionary Che Guevara, connecting with Guevara’s attacks on American cultural imperialism.

On a much lighter note was Pola Chappele’s How to Draw a Cat (1973), in which the filmmaker attempts to demonstrate drawing a cat by tracing an actual cat on a large sheet of paper. The cat, of course, resists this use of its body, and the film becomes an amusing struggle between artist and unwilling subject. In the end, the drawing isn’t very good, but the film certainly is.

For the full list of films shown at the CAT Film Festival as well as forthcoming screenings and events, visit southsideprojections.org or chicagofilmmakers.org. For information about Hyde Park Cats, visit hydeparkcats.org.