‘Fursonas’ explores Furry fandom and the media

By Rob Owen

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Filmed partly in Pittsburgh, home to the annual Furries fest Anthrocon each summer, the new documentary “Fursonas” was made by a local man who was in the closet about his own furry status – to his collaborators and the film’s interview subjects – during the early stages of production.

“Fursonas,” available today on iTunes and other online digital platforms, begins by explaining furry enthusiasts’ interest in anthropomorphic animals from a party line perspective. The film grows more interesting halfway through when director Dominic Rodriguez pushes back against that same carefully cultivated image.

Rodriguez, 25, a 2009 graduate of Upper St. Clair High School who now lives in McDonald, began work on “Fursonas” while studying cinema and digital arts at Point Park University with fellow students Olivia Vaughn, the film’s producer, and Christine Meyer, the film’s editor.

The project began as a 12-minute senior thesis in 2012 but grew into an 81-minute documentary. Eventually “Fursonas” became a production of Pittsburgh’s Animal Media Group, the company responsible for the ABC pilot “Downward Dog” and the 2013 documentary “Blood Brother.”

The film’s first half profiles assorted Furries, including some local to Pittsburgh (such as Boomer the Dog, aka Gary Guy Mathews). It’s a fairly by-the-numbers introduction to Furries culture, the appeal of being part of the Furries community and its tendency to attract outcasts.

“Fursonas” grows more compelling once it leaves those rudimentary elements behind and begins examining furries in the media and the policies of Anthrocon and its leader, CEO Sam Conway (aka Uncle Kage), who profanely disparages any Furries who fail to live up to his expectations of promoting a positive Furry image.

In “Fursonas,” Conway advises Furries not to lie or get defensive when speaking to the media but to deflect questions or play dumb, especially if reporters inquire about the sexual side of Furries culture.

“We rely on the goodwill of the people of Pittsburgh,” Conway says during an Anthrocon panel, before threatening, in graphic terms, anyone who embarrasses the convention.

“Fursonas” introduces the founder of Bad Dragon, a company that makes sex toys for Furries, which once had a store at Anthrocon until “Uncle Kage wanted nothing to do with that,” according to one Anthrocon attendee.

Rodriguez said he was interested in Furries at age 12, and he got more into the scene as he worked on “Fursonas.” He’d never been to a Furries convention before he started making “Fursonas,” but now he tries to make it to one con per month. He has his own Furries persona, a wolf called Video, and costume.

Rodriguez said he didn’t initially share his Furries intrigue with the Furries he interviewed or with his fellow filmmakers, saying he wanted to earn their trust as a filmmaker “instead of asking like I was owed that trust.”

He also wanted to question the approach of Conway in dealing with the media and his iron-fisted desire to maintain a clean public image for all Furrykind.

“I didn’t like the way Furries in the media were portrayed; it felt exploitative,” Rodriguez said. “But I also didn’t like the response from Furry fandom, which was too much in the other direction, too PR-heavy.”

The Furry devotees Rodriguez interviews both defend Conway’s approach and question it.

“It’s an unnecessary cover-up,” says one Furry interviewed in “Fursonas.” ”If you just let things be . people might accept Furries for who they are.”

Rodriguez said the footage of Conway was culled from free online sources and mostly recorded with Mr. Conway’s knowledge at Furries-in-the-media panels at Anthrocon.

“To my knowledge, he hasn’t seen (the film) yet,” Rodriguez said. “But they don’t endorse the film because we broke the Anthrocon rules.”

Those rules include editorial review of documentaries filmed at Anthrocon, Rodriguez said. “I broke the rules because I don’t agree with them. It’s a freedom of speech thing.”

Conway said none of the Anthrocon directors have seen “Fursonas” in its entirety.

“The filmmakers declined our repeated requests to view it, and there have been no screenings local to any board member’s home,” he wrote in an email. “Based on the clips, reviews and articles that have appeared online, however, the film appears to portray the filmmakers’ own perspectives and predilections as opposed to presenting a balanced overview of our community.”

Rodriguez said when he went to register for this year’s Anthrocon, which will be held June 30-July 3 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, he learned he has been banned from the event.

“Obviously there’s a little delight in being a rebel, but I didn’t want to get banned. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble,” Rodriguez said. “It’s bittersweet. Anthrocon is in my town, it’s my con.”

Rodriguez has been screening “Fursonas” at other Furries conventions, and there may be efforts afoot to try to hold a screening in Pittsburgh to coincide with Anthrocon. (It did have one showing in Pittsburgh at the Regent Square Theater on March 10.)

“The reaction from the community has been surprisingly positive,” he said. “It’s about starting a conversation. I didn’t want to just shake things up and ruin people’s lives.

“Everybody who’s actually seen the movie, for the most part, is getting a lot out of it.”