You really can't blame Dr. Samuel Conway for being so overprotective of furries.
The community of folks who draw, identify with and get together in animal costumes has taken its lumps in the media over the years, according to the organic chemist who leads Anthrocon, the largest furry convention in the world. In a 2001 Vanity Fair article, author George Gurley proclaimed, "This is no hobby. It's sex; it's religion; it's a whole new way of life." The following year, furries were branded sexual deviants on MTV's Sex2K/True Life. A 2003 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (called "Fur and Loathing") began with a dead body in a raccoon suit before moving on to the usual furred suspects. On Entourage, a bunny suit-wearing Drama fucked a woman in a dog suit—appropriately enough—doggie-style after Turtle refused to wear the bunny costume. Perhaps most famously/notoriously was a 2009 episode of The Tyra Banks Show that featured a couple in bed talking about their costumed sex play as the hostess and soccer moms in the audience looked back with mouths agape.
With the documentary Fursonas, which rolls during the April 21-28 run of the Newport Beach Film Festival, Dominic Rodriguez hopes to move the national conversation beyond furries as freaks, sexual or otherwise. But what the filmmaker discovered two years into the project was even more fascinating than that. Right at the center of it is Conway, who is known by his furry followers as Uncle Kage (pronounced kah-gay).
Fursonas truly could have wound up an entirely different film. As a filmmaking major at Point Park University in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rodriguez needed a project for his senior thesis. So did classmate Olivia Vaughn, whom Rodriguez had worked with on student films before. They got on so well they decided to team up for their senior theses on a documentary about autism or mental health, but that fell through.
They were scrambling for a new subject around the time Anthrocon was headed back to Pittsburgh. Neither filmmaker had been to the convention before, so director Rodriguez and producer Vaughn decided to bring a camera to the Three Rivers City's Westin Convention Center Hotel. The rest is furry movie history.
But Rodriguez confided to the Weekly that completing studies was not the only reason he was down with filming furries.
"I'd been interested in furry stuff for a really long time, secretly," he says. He is speaking from Chicago, where Fursonas is showing at an Arclight theater. "I used this as an excuse to get into that subculture. I was in it, but I did not go to conventions, and I had no suit. I did not know the social scene. It was like I was half in and half out. This seemed like a pretty good place to start."
Despite Rodriguez's own furry fandom, he intended to tell the truth—whatever that turned out to be.
"I wanted the whole thing to feel real," he says. "I did not want it to be a PSA, but I also did not want something exploitative. It was all about finding that middle ground."
Pulling an actual story out of that middle ground proved difficult, however. "For a while, there was not a plot, just portraits. It was really boring. . . . I didn't want to create a story where there isn't one. However, after working on it a long enough time, all the stuff started adding up to a pretty amazing story, I thought."
The story he found . . . well, let's just say it's a warts-and-all portrait of the "official" furry community and how it is run with an iron paw by Uncle Kage (who may or may not get marching orders from the masters of the website FurAffinity.net or FA).
Rodriguez is not apologetic about how things turned out. "Ignoring the story right in front of me would be worse than making one up," he reasons.
Those who go to see Fursonas at the Newport Beach Film Festival (or anywhere else) may wonder after the first 20 minutes what he's talking about. The movie starts out so earnest. "It was important," he explains, "to get to know who all [the furries] are as people."
They have names for their furry personae such as Quad, Diezel and Boomer the dog. Actually, the latter becomes, to this viewer at least, the hero of the film, as he is the one interviewee who most embodies the furry philosophy, which is pretty much the same as Dr. Frank-N-Furter's: Don't dream it, be it.
"He's a remarkable individual," Rodriguez says of the fellow who took his name from the title character of the 1980-82 NBC show Here's Boomer. "He is the only person I have ever met who 100 percent doesn't give a shit. But he's not a dick about it; he is just totally who he is."
That's much to the chagrin of official furry fandom, whose leadership scoffs at the practitioner's paper costume and unsuccessful attempt to legally change his name to "Boomer" (and species to canine). "Now, furries who have seen the film are saying they feel bad about things they have said about him [in the past]," Rodriguez says. "That's cool. He has been in this scene forever. A lot of people were not even furries when he started. He is very self-aware and smart and knows exactly what he is doing. He gave me so much insight. He's the zen master. I told him, 'I aspire to be a 10th as cool as you are.'"
Boomer embodies the tug-of-war between living freely as a furry and the fierce protection of the community's image. "That took a really long time," Rodriguez says of nailing down the film's main story. "I knew going in furries were kind of protective of their image. I did not know to what extent."
Unprecedented access—as well as footage that may prove embarrassing to Uncle Kage—produced the most telling moments in the film. "I didn't find the Uncle Kage videos until later," Rodriguez says. "The revelations happened after working on the film for two years. It changed a lot over time, but the change was organic.
"My friend said it best: 'He gives himself enough microphone cord to hang himself.' Nothing was sneaked to us. It's all on the Internet. It's from panels he's hosted all over the U.S."
Conway is so protective of the furry image that even after back-and-forth emails with an unabashed enthusiast such as Rodriguez, the two could not agree to terms for an on-camera interview. "He was always very polite about it," the director says of Uncle Kage.
Fursonas includes a card onscreen that explains Conway demanded the right to preview and edit whatever Rodriguez shot. When the movie was set to premiere at Slamdance in January, festival organizers received an email from Anthrocon stating that showing the documentary would amount to a breach of copyright, according to Rodriguez. "Our lawyer sent back an email stating not showing it would be a breach of our civil liberties," Rodriguez says. "They haven't said anything since then."
He believes the organization's leader is simply behind the times. "Uncle Kage represents that furries are totally normal and a force of good," he says. "That's a ridiculously unrealistic expectation to set. I think they should be taken seriously, but it's also funny, and you are free to laugh at it. Look at any other community: Is the gay community good or bad? Or is the Christian community good or bad? They just are. They are just a huge group of people."
As with everything else in this uptight country of ours, it all comes down to sex—and, in Uncle Kage's view, whether the general public should know how large a roll it plays in furry fandom.
"It definitely feels like a big part of it online, with the [furry] porn," Rodriguez says. "It keeps coming back to that. There are many kinds of perversions."
Why would the sexual proclivities of participants be such a big deal in a community that obviously does not otherwise care what people think of them?
"I'm biased because I believe 'just do what you do and let the chips fall where they may,'" Rodriguez says. "But other people have more reasons to feel the way they do. My parents are amazing and super-supportive, so it's easy for me to say, 'Just express yourself.' Other people have never told their parents. So if they say cartoon fans who give to charity are all they are, I understand why they are saying that."
* * * * *
Folks interviewed in Fursonas suggest furries came out of the closet, so to speak, thanks to Disney. The 1994 release of The Lion King, which applied human characteristics to ferocious felines, seems to have done the trick. The rising Internet culture allowed furries to find one another. Anthrocon debuted in Albany, New York, in 1997.
But there's a local thread to furry history that dates back even farther. Anthropomorphic fandom and MUCK (Multi-User Chat/Created/Computer/Character/Carnal Kingdom) combined for the high-speed role-playing FurryMUCK at North Carolina State University from early 1990 through mid-1991, when it was forced to move to UC Irvine. FurryMUCK stayed in Orange County through November 1991, when it moved to Carnegie-Mellon University, then on to the University of Toronto and St. Norbert College, where it remained until 1999, when it was finally relocated to a dedicated server.
Many local enthusiasts belong to SoCal Furs (socalfurs.com), which began as a Yahoo Group on April 28, 2000. "No matter what your species, all are welcome here," read the intro for the adult-only community that shared information on upcoming events and news. Members were advised, "Keep all subject matter friendly (i.e. . . . no flaming, no drama)."
When it's mentioned what psychologists have written about furries—that most are males, most of those males are gay or bisexual, most of the females are heterosexual, most of all of them were into cartoons more than non-furries, and most have long identified with animals or animal traits—Rodriguez tends to agree . . . to a point. "The reason I hesitate on taking a stand is because there has never been a conclusive, thorough study," he says. "It's true in my experience, but for every example, there are a million counterexamples.
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"I agree that there is more openness to the LGBT spectrum in the community for sure, but there is more openness to everything," he continues. "Part of our film's takeaway is there is something different in the community for everyone involved. You can't say how much [of the psychological profiles] are for sure unless you get to know each individual."
Rodriguez sees parallels between the furry community and the transgender community, which has also been nudged into the mainstream by recent moving pictures (Transparent and Orange Is the New Black). "It's starting a conversation. It's great. You do not even have to like it. The fact that this isn't something that is talked about makes it interesting. Me, I'm more interested in the furry side of things, so I stand to gain more from it. But other people will find it relatable. Someone with a documentary about a little religious group told me, 'I have the exact same struggles getting my film made.' They have their own Uncle Kage."
Rodriguez believes the furry fandom "is at a transitional point right now. The timing of this movie is really lucky. Some furries are fed up with how their image is being controlled. Others are really passionate about this. Maybe there was a time the Uncle Kage approach was needed, when you had to whitewash things and cast people out for the greater good. But you can argue that time is ending, or maybe it's over now and it's time to move forward and be more progressive."
Fursonas screens during the Newport Beach Film Festival; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. At the Triangle, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, April 23, 3:30 p.m.; and at Island Cinema, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, April 27, 12:15 p.m.