The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Chicago Dog Lovers Are Getting Their Own Film Fest

By Gwendolyn Purdom in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 7, 2016 5:01PM

The whole cat video festival thing has been done. Thankfully, a new event envisioned to celebrate dogs on camera sounds like an entirely different, well, animal.

“[The Internet Cat Video Festival] had a different sensibility,” Vermont-based radio host Tracie Hotchner told us. “It was about meeting celebrity cats, many of which were deformed in some way and that was found to be charming. It’s a very different feeling than wanting to have an emotional, intellectual experience about what dogs really mean to us and where they fit in our lives.”

On Sunday, Hotchner, along with presenting sponsor the Petco Foundation and PAWS Chicago, will bring Chicago its first film festival completely devoted to dogs. The Dog Film Festival at Lakeview’s Music Box Theater will be divided into two 90-minute screenings, each made up of a different collection of videos about the relationship between human and canine from filmmakers of all ages and experience levels. The 11:30 a.m. showtime will include works like a 30-minute film famed dog photographer William Wegman made years ago and specially remastered for the festival; a short about ways dogs can help around the house; and a funny exploration of what dogs are actually thinking. The 2 p.m. screening features a PBS documentary about incarcerated women who train service dogs and a period piece about a German Shepherd who saves the life of a Jewish resistance fighter fleeing the Nazis, among other films. Chicago is the festival’s sixth stop on a national tour that kicked off in New York City last October.

Hotchner, a pet wellness advocate known for her Radio Pet Lady Network, says she was inspired to found the festival partly because of the success of things like the Internet Cat Festival, but mostly because the strength of the dog and human bond has come up again and again in her work over the years. (Hotchner's late godmother, Joan Rivers, demonstrated that bond throughout her life as well, which is why this year's inaugural fest is dedicated to her memory). Initially, Hotchner wasn’t sure how the idea would go over, but the response from cities like East Hampton, New York and Rochester, New York, Hotchner says, has been overwhelmingly positive. In cities like Los Angeles where dogs were allowed to join human festivalgoers at the theater, she says there have even been some approving barks during screenings.

“Everyone’s relationship with their dog is quite unique,” she said. “It’s colored from the time you were a child and had dogs from childhood or never got to have a dog, so I didn’t know for sure that a filmmaker’s vision of the comment that they want to make about that relationship would resonate. But the more that I saw the films that were out there, it was like, ‘Oh my God! Look how lucky we all are!’”

A still from William Wegman's film "The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold,” courtesy The Dog Film Festival

While dogs aren’t allowed in the theater Sunday, PAWS volunteers will have adoptable dogs outside for the dog-lovers the event is sure to attract to meet before and after the screenings. The shelter will also receive 50 percent of proceeds from the festival. In Hotchner’s ideal world, the festival would draw movie-lovers of all kinds, not just dog-crazy ones. For next year’s festival, she’s in the process of partnering with more established general film festivals in each city to bring more attention to the films and the non-profits they benefit. So far, no Chicago film festival has signed on for 2017, but some have in other cities.

“The filmmaking is creative and artistic and heartfelt and very interesting visually and moving emotionally and intellectually,” Hotchner said. “It’s a magic carpet ride, even if you didn’t love dogs you might say, ‘Oh, well maybe this is why all these nutty people love dogs so much. I get it.’”