What do you do when a pet dies? It’s a sensitive topic, and one that is circling round the Tacoma arts scene right now thanks to two events. One was last Saturday’s screening of “Furever,” part of the Tacoma Film Festival at the Grand Cinema, a 70-minute documentary of people who taxidermy, mummify, freeze-dry or clone their lost loved animals. The other is an upcoming workshop at Tacoma’s Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital on making artistic “ofrendas,” altars in the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition, to honor the pet you’ve lost.
Saturday night saw two quite different crowds at the Grand. One was a packed-out cinema full of old rockers and their fans, plus photography-lovers, all there to see Karen Whitehead’s new documentary on Jini Dellaccio. Now 96, Dellaccio was a self-taught commercial photographer in the 1960s when she was approached by a Tacoma garage rock band called The Wailers to take their album shots.
“I heard it as ‘The Whalers,’ ” Dellaccio remembered in a story I wrote on her last year when the Harbor History Museum ran a retrospective of her elegant, stylish photography. “I thought it was a fishing group.”
That gig led to more with groups from The Sonics to Neil Young, and the rest is history – history documented by Whitehead in a film that had the audience raving in the Q&A afterwards. Dellaccio herself was there, looking not a day over 76 and clad, as always, extremely fashionably.
Over in the opposite cinema, however, were a motley group who had come to look at dead animals. Literally – one of the lead sources of “Furever,” by director Amy Finkel, was Tacoman Gretta Graves, who attended the screening along with her freeze-dried Pomeranian Rudy. (Zipped up in a travel bag, except at the Q&A.)
But in case you’re thinking that “Furever” inspires voyeuristic sensationalism, you couldn’t be more wrong. With slick production values, a sensitive eye and even more sensitive ear for human emotion, Finkel tackles the touchy subject of human grief with a very rounded approach. Leading the narration is an East Coast taxidermist who starts out as a tough redneck who keeps his own dog in the yard and takes on freeze-drying pets as a quick money-earner, but who evolves by the end into someone who treats his dead clients with tenderness, and starts to think a bit more deeply about his own pet relationship. But there are many other voices: biologists talking about how pet relationships stimulate oxytocin and improve human health, veterinarians learning empathy, grief counselors, pet psychics (yes), practictioners of Summum (a quasi-Egyptian religion with a mummification center in Salt Lake City), theologians talking about animal souls, and of course the bereaved owners themselves. Of these, Graves is clearly the most approachable and non-extremist; others include one man who paid $100,000 to clone his dog and whose only comment on the ethics of surrogacy was that “suffering exists.”
Finkel goes deep into this subject, and gets some fascinating footage (to be avoided by those with sensitive stomachs). She alludes to the moral side only in passing – the sheer cost ($1,000 for a freeze-dried cat), the nutty things people will do for live pets. But there’s one philosophical question she avoids, and that is whether life is still as precious if we avoid – or conquer – death.
Oh, and Rudy? He's oddly light and hard to touch, though his fur is as baby-soft as you'd expect.
Philosophy hits the ground this weekend, however, in a Tacoma workshop that deals with pet death in a very practical way. The Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital is offering a weekend workshop October 19-20 in creating “ofrendas” – Day of the Dead altars that commemorate lost loved ones with memorabilia and artistic treatment – for pets, led by artist Michaela Eaves. It’s just in time for the Dia de los Muertos festival on November 1.
For more information, call 253-274-0225 or email email@example.com.
And in more TFF news: the winners. Best Shorts: “The Telegram Man,” “Woody”; Best Narrative: “Euphonia”; Best Documentary: “A River Changes Course”; Audience Choice: “Her Aim is True.” All screen Wednesday at The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma.The Tacoma Film Festival continues at various Tacoma venues through Thursday. More information: tacomafilmfestival.com
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org