Two annual cinematic celebrations invariably attract impassioned ticket buyers, even though they lack car chases, explosions, alien invasions or Daniel Craig as a pouty James Bond.
What they do have: whiskers, wildness and no small amount of wit.
They’re the NY Cat Film Festival and the NY Dog Film Festival, which are returning to Manhattan after a pandemic-induced hiatus. The cat festival, screening at noon on Saturday — Global Cat Day — at the Village East by Angelika theater, comprises 21 short works that run for a total of around 90 minutes. The nearly two-hour dog festival, which arrives at the same theater on Oct. 24, features 20 short films. (Animal lovers outside New York can see the festivals, too: They will tour for several months, both nationwide and in Canada.)
“I think it’s the highest-quality year, possibly, for both,” said Tracie Hotchner, an author and radio host in Vermont who founded the dog festival in 2015 and the cat edition two years later. In a telephone interview, she explained that in the early days of lockdown in 2020, “people couldn’t find toilet paper, but they were making beautiful movies.”
Not surprisingly, the pandemic is featured in both festivals. In “Will You Be My Quarantine,” a feline comedy, the actress and director Susku Ekim Kaya shows herself and her pet, Lady Leia, in split screen, engaged in typically obsessive lockdown activities like grooming, TV watching, cellphone scrolling and FaceTime calling. They lead harmonious parallel lives, whereas the feline protagonists of Jasmin Scuteri-Young’s “Quarantine Diary” and Asali Echols’s “House Cats” complain of their owners’ constant presence in human-supplied voice-overs.
The dog festival’s subjects, on the other hand, never seem to long for social distancing. “You don’t believe in personal space,” Kyle Scoble says tenderly to Darla, his Labrador retriever-pointer mix, in “The Second Time I Got to Know My Dog,” a documentary that acts as a tribute to how Darla got him through 2020.
But cats may have a reason for their apparently aloof attitudes. “If it’s an indoor cat, it’s enduring a perpetual state of lockdown,” Kim Best, a director from Durham, N.C., said in a phone conversation.
That observation fuels Best’s “The Great Escape,” in which a cat named Monkey makes concerted attempts to exit the household, even consulting the digital assistant Alexa, which he bats around and meows at. In Best’s other festival entry, “Cat Capitalization,” her pet, Nube, turns to the internet to market his artistic talent, pretentiously thanking — in thought bubbles — mentors like the artists Mark Rothko and Vincent van Gogh. (Nube is missing a bit of one ear.)
Best said she aimed for “a satire of not only capitalism but also of academia.”
Such humor is very much a theme of the cat festival, in which films like Nevada Caldwell’s “Feline Noir” and Priscilla Dean’s “Catfight at the O’Kay Corral” parody old Hollywood clichés.
But while the canine film slate is not without laughs — David Coole’s animated “Go Fetch” is a pointed two-minute revenge comedy — it has far more of the in-depth examinations of the human-animal bond that characterized both festivals previously.
“Affection in the Streets,” for instance, a Brazilian documentary by Thiago Köche, captures the lives of Pôrto Alegre’s homeless, who often take better care of their dogs than themselves. The loyal pets also attract concern from passers-by, who frequently ignore the suffering of the animals’ owners.
“People who love dogs just look right past the humans,” Hotchner said. “I would love more movies about that, because I think it’s the thing we don’t want to look at.”
“The Comfort Dogs” also shows the power of pet ownership. Made by Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker, an Australian couple who live and work together in Brooklyn, the film is an excerpt from their feature documentary “We Don’t Deserve Dogs.” The segment focuses on the Comfort Dog Project, which provides pets to young people who were forced to become child soldiers in Uganda’s civil war.
With the dogs at their side, the former soldiers can share “quite harrowing” experiences, Salleh said in a joint phone call. “The dogs almost become part of the storytelling method itself.”
Another documentary, Zach Putnam’s “Nicola,” illustrates how its subject, a yellow Lab from Canine Companions, a service program for people with disabilities, transformed not only the life of the college student who received her. She also delivered a strong lesson in trust and sacrifice to the student who devotedly trained her but ultimately, tearfully, had to give her up.
Both festivals, however, remind viewers that these animals need people as much as people need them. Hotchner, who organizes the programs as a labor of love — tickets to each are $20 — always contributes part of each screening’s sales to a related local charity. The cat festival in New York will help support Bideawee’s Feral Cat Initiative, while this year, all dog festival showings will benefit the nonprofits associated with Saving Senior Dogs Week (Oct. 25-31).
“There is a growing awareness,” Covid aside, “that senior dogs are delightful to adopt and the most quick to be put to sleep in a shelter,” Hotchner said. In Gary Tellalian’s “Legends of Comedy Share Love for Old Dogs,” you’ll hear this message in a public service announcement from celebrities who are seniors themselves: Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and Lily Tomlin, along with Carl Reiner, who died last June at 98.
The plight of dogs that aren’t cuddly puppies also surfaces in documentaries like “Not Broken: Freedom Ride,” by Krista Dillane, Emma Lao and Dylan Abad, about a long journey to transport 53 rescued dogs from Louisiana to a pet adoption fair in Rhode Island. In “Chino,” another excerpt from “We Don’t Deserve Dogs,” its aging subject, a street mutt in Santiago, Chile, survives simply because concerned residents provide care.
“The street dog culture there is completely different,” Tucker said, adding that the animals are a way to “just bring an entire community together” — a goal for these festivals, too.
Oct. 16 at the Village East by Angelika, Manhattan; catfilmfestival.com.
Oct. 24 at the Village East by Angelika, Manhattan; dogfilmfestival.com.