Interview: Amy Finkel

Furever - Interview - Hot Docs 2013

As if death wasn’t morbid enough to think about in the human realm, those of us who have lost pets can attest that the loss of a furry, feathered, fishy, or scaly friend can attest that it doesn’t get easier when a beloved pet passes on. It’s akin to losing an actual family member most of the time, and just like how humans have burial needs and a sense of dignified decorum dictating how ones remains are dealt with, entire industries have arisen surrounding the loss of pets.

Filmmaker Amy Finkel is decidedly not a part of that industry, but her Hot Docs screening documentary Furever (narrated by actress Illeana Douglas) takes a look at a wide range of pet loss issues that no one seemingly wants to think about. From the more obvious and widely known processes of taxidermy, freeze drying and the scattering of ashes to articles of clothing made of hair, diamonds made from animal DNA, and even supposed cloning and mummification of past pets, Finkel doesn’t only look at the sometimes outlandish ways that people seek to preserve their memories. It’s a fascinating look not only at something just slightly out of the ordinary, it’s also a grounded and incredibly touching look at how we move on from death and those that seek to profit from it.

The intensely charming and remarkably well adjusted and not even slightly morbid Finkel called in to Dork Shelf from New York a few days before her film debuts about her own personal connections to the story, the desire to not sensationalize or talk down about the subject, and why of all those methods listed above, cremation is quite shocklingly one of (if not the most) suspect methods of preserving or disposing of memories.

Dork Shelf: To make a film about the loss of a pet it seems like there has to be a little bit of a personal connection to make someone interested in doing it. How did your experiences with possibly having pets or watching other people interact with their pets colour your wanting to make this film?

Furever - Amy Finkel - Interview - Hot Docs 2013 - F2Amy Finkel: I guess I had experienced some of this personally. I should preface this by saying that I haven’t done any of these less conventional methods of preservation or even memorialization. When we were kids we would occasionally bury our pets and our dog got euthanlized. We didn’t even keep the cremated remains of our dog, but now we do.

I found when I was a child and we lost a pet that my parents kind of turned a little cold. We loved animals. We had cats, dogs; I had a pet rat and there were all sorts of budgies and lizards and all kinds of stuff, and I was always devastated and never not taken by surprise. I assumed it was somehow pathological in a kind of way. I thought that I probably shouldn’t have had such a hard time letting go and that others were experiencing pet loss in the same way that I was.

It was something that always felt stigmatized, and it certainly was a lot more back then. I found that as I aged it didn’t get any easier to lose pets, so I knew that there was probably a huge physiological element to it. That was kind of the impetus behind creating (the film).

I read a newspaper several years ago, probably six or seven years ago now, about outrageous pet expenditure and they brought up freeze drying and Max the Taxedermist, and I just didn’t think they were that crazy. I thought, “What about that would offer comfort to a pet owner?” Do they think the soul still exist? When I was a kid and thinking about these kinds of things that idea of an animal having a soul wasn’t even a part of the discussion with my parents. They were total atheists, so that was never something that was thinkable at all. I was just so curious and I thought I would probably be a good person to do a documentary on it because I was so sensitive to it. I thought that a lot of it might be a bit peculiar, but I understood a lot of the passion and that inability to let go first hand.

DS: You approach a number of businesses and pet owners to talk about the subject, and it seems like while the former would be easy to approach, it seems that a lot of these personal stories that you’re getting would be harder to bring out of your subjects because of that stigma you were just talking about. It’s hard to talk about the nature of letting go and what an appropriate amount of time is socially acceptable to grieve. How did you approach these people to be in the film and reassure them? It seems like a hard thing to sell an on camera interview about.

AF: Yeah, especially in this world of reality TV, it could get kind of hard. Still, people talk about the film and assume it’s just about pet taxidermy, which, of course, it’s not. I really lucked out. I made a certain choice that helped me at some points and hindered me at others. That decision was to go out and fund using a Kickstarter at the beginning, and I chose to do a small short to start with. I had to reshoot a bunch of it and it was on Max the Taxidermist and freeze drying, but I originally thought that would be the most provocative subject matter that would ensure I would get funding. (laughs) That was my main goal at the beginning. How much money could I get to make a better product and land an executive producer?

It kind of led people to think that the entire movie was going to be about freeze drying, but through just pure luck it did really, really well on Kickstarter and it got a lot of press based around the short, and one of those sources was The New York Times, which is, of course, amazing and everything, but they did a profile on me that made me seem a little nutty. (laughs) It certainly made it so I could forward the article to any person or subject that I wanted to interview, and they would immediately read it and think: “She’s not gonna make fun of us. She’s one of us.” It helped, and I don’t mind if people think I became a bit too attached to my pet rat as a kid.

And I’m really not judgmental, at all. I think just in talking to people you build a certain level of trust with them. I generally like to think I’m a nice person. (laughs) I think so, anyway. Some of my subjects I talked to for several hours. One subject wouldn’t even sign on until we had had about six, hour long conversations. He was in China half the time and we would just call all the time. He had said no to everyone else because he got really screwed over by TLC. This was Peter who was in the segment of the film about cloning, and he thought he was going to be on the Discovery Channel and ended up on TLC in a terrible reality show called I Cloned My Pet. So he was REALLY gunshy, and it was something that I had found with a lot of subjects. I still worry if I was hard on a couple of subjects, but I think I was being completely unbiased. I knew I had to not only be super sensitive to the subjects, but to be unbiased, even though it’s more on the sensitive side than the unbiased side sometimes. (laughs)

DS: Do you think through the making of this film that your opinion of how long the grieving process should take was coloured by the people you met along the way?

AF: I think if anything… how should I put this? It made me realize just how stigmatized death is and how taboo it is to discuss and how little we understand it. That’s why I made it a point to look at how in other cultures this isn’t such an abnormality, but since we were able to get antibiotics in the 1940s we became used to just not seeing death that frequently. I think I was more taken by that than anything else.

I do get a lot of questions about the process of letting go and how long is too long to mourn the loss of a pet, but I never felt like anyone that I had talked to that was still grieving even an upward of ten years – and sometimes it was that much – I never felt that it was really hindering their daily routine of any kind. It might have at first in some cases, but I was just really struck how close to the surface this sadness was sometimes. And occasionally I was really moved by it. By now I’m kind of desensitized to it. I have a dog that I absolutely adore that’s thirteen, so a lot of that is on the surface for me, as well, but I would cry with the subjects sometimes. I never felt that they were really unhealthy.

In talking to some of the grief counsellors that we have in the film – and that was such a gargantuan project that I couldn’t possibly include all of it – I know that one of them did say that occasionally she would tell people that she couldn’t help them anymore. This has so much more to do with other stuff than it does with your pet that it just transcends that. If anyone considered it in any sort of pathological way or was grieving for too long it was often because they were grieving the loss of something else in their lives, as well. It wasn’t actually always the pet.

DS: That makes the other discussion that you bring up in the film so much more interesting because you also look at how there’s an entire industry of people that are really profiting from this kind of specified kind of grief. Once you start to get to know these subjects it seems like that might be a harder thing to look into on an emotional level.

AF: Well, that’s what’s kind of unfortunate about it. Of course people are left feeling that these people are exploiting these pet owners at a point where they’re at their most vulnerable, but I actually knew that we would be giving a platform to all of these companies. Regardless of whether or not someone thinks its cool to blast your pets ashes into fireworks or something, I knew that was the kind of company we would have to be contacting. There were a lot of even wilder or less wild things that you can do with your pet’s cremains or the pets themselves, but I vetted everyone so strictly that I would have sometimes a few hour long conversations with a company to make sure they were genuine in some way. Even for that little montage about memorialization, because I just did not want to give a voice to anyone I know who didn’t get it and was trying to exploit pet owners. Unfortunately, people do kind of assume that these companies are doing some not so great things, but everyone in the film – with the exception of a couple of people in the death care conference in Vegas that you see where you can kind of tell… well, you can guess because they aren’t really in that segment, but in that memorialization segement certainly lists “Here are the things you can do. Go find them.”

But all of these people were genuinely pretty wonderful. Across the board almost always the biggest answer when asking someone “Why did you get into the death care industry” almost always yields that answer that it was because you had struggled or experience death in your own life. That was my own reasoning for making the film, and I wouldn’t put anyone in who seemed to be exploiting people. I just didn’t really experience that. Sure, some people were making a lot of money off of it. Like DNA Diamonds and those diamond companies aren’t making a lot of money off of it now, but they certainly see that there’s the potential for a lot or growth in it, but they will be making it.

But someone like Max the Taxidermist… He makes more money off of freeze drying than he does off the taxidermy, which is why he got into it in the first place, but he’s certainly not exploiting people, and you can easily tell that through the time we spent with him, but I never thought that there was anything malicious ever going on with any of these people. I definitely saw the big business aspect to all of this, but I never thought it was a world where people were ever doing anything less than what they said they would do.

DS: There is a lot going on around the periphery of that, though, where you get to show cemeteries in disrepair and just how unscrupulous something like a crematorium could be. That was kind of eye opening to see that these more conventional methods of putting a pet to rest seemed to be the ones most fraught with problems. Was that surprising to you as you went along making the film? It’s just so frightening to think that you could pay all this money and that your pet’s remains could just end up in a dump with random ashes in an urn.

AF: I couldn’t agree more with you there. One of the crematoriums that we focused on in New Orleans had been doing this kind of thing for about ten years. Just last year I think it was six crematories in Vancouver, BC alone were shut down because of that same thing. I mean, it does happen sometimes on the human side of things, too, but there are much more regulatory restrictions in place when it comes to that. It baffled me how little regulation there is on that kind of thing.

Obviously, more and more pets are becoming legitimate family members. You wouldn’t ever think that you wouldn’t be getting those ashes back. Who would want to even think about that? It’s weird enough having a vet act as a funeral director nowadays that people wouldn’t necessarily think, but this sociological evolution has taken place over the past thirty years or so and veterinarians are trying to catch up. But I think it’s unbelievable overall what happens.

The EPA is the body that oversees human crematoriums in the US, which is understandable because potentially noxious gasses are being released, but no one is actually looking at the other side of it. I thought it was important to put this information in there. I just wouldn’t have thought about it and just what happens. I wouldn’t even use one now. Even if a vet came back and said that a crematory is fine, the one thing I would hear over and over again is that unless they go and personally visit they wouldn’t get the full story just from their literature. It’s not okay and I think it happens all the time. It’s wild.