“I had never seen anything like this before.”
It’s not just enough to find an eccentric character and let their quirks motivate your film. A good documentary reaches past the eccentric spectacle for a story of universal human experiences. Otherwise, in filmmaker Jacob Feiring’s words, it’s “futile.” Feiring took that to heart when he decided to follow Samantha Martin’s shoestring cat circus for over five years to create Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats, premiering at DOC NYC this weekend.
"My concerns surrounding this subject matter led to a very observational approach."
While daydreaming at his deli day-job, Jacob Feiring got a photo text of a “cat circus” flier from a friend and soon found himself at an Acro-Cats show in a small town in Iowa. “I had never seen anything like this before,” said Feiring about Samantha’s show. “It was, however, clear that Samantha's show was still in its infancy, and that there were growing pains, which made it a compelling moment to begin documenting the circus' progress.” After years of following her progress, Feiring found a story of loss, love, and the artist's dream of creating something wonderful—that people will actually come to see.
Feiring sat down with No Film School to talk about the logistics of filming in an RV full of cats, recognizing universal hurdles, and never fully growing up.
NFS: There’s a small vein in documentary of films about eccentric people and/or their eccentric hobbies. Often, that character stays on the other side of the lens as an odd curiosity. Samantha is clearly an eccentric character, but in your film, she is very relatable and her story becomes about fundamental human experiences. How did you accomplish that, and what was your guiding philosophy in telling this story?
Jacob Feiring: Samantha was kind enough to have me as a guest collaborator and I did not take that for granted. I prioritized trying to create a piece that encapsulated her spirit and felt authentic to her story, at least by her standards. From the way we shot to edited, I consciously tried to avoid fabricated cat spectacle and, in my opinion, a one-dimensional media conjured archetype of the “cat lady,” that would have been easier to create for entertainment’s sake, but futile. My concerns surrounding this subject matter led to a very observational approach, where we would wait and record moments as they unfolded instead of trying to overly direct or stylize a scene.
To me, the privilege of spending extended time collaborating on a documentary is inevitably, and sometimes unintentionally, recording these universal human experiences. Regardless of someone's life or career choices, I believe that often the humanity of those moments will shine through. Samantha is extremely intelligent, remarkably tenacious, and handles many challenging moments in her life with grace, which I believed would make her relatable.
As she faced monumental moments such as family members aging and getting sick, similar events occurred in my life and I recognized these as universal hurdles that everyone must confront. We all must personally decide on the life that we want when we get up in the morning, how to age, and we must face these choices, whether in a house with a family or on the road pursuing art. If on paper Samantha is an eccentric, some might argue that I am as well for making this film.
"Production was chaotic, and included filming in a cramped RV, with about 14 animals and two cat trainers, and at show venues across America."
NFS: What was production like in this environment, where you’re sometimes sleeping on the side of the road with a bunch of cats?
Feiring: A majority of this film during the production stage was independently funded, which means everything was barebones from crew size to accommodations. Production was chaotic, and included filming in a cramped RV, with about 14 animals and two cat trainers, and at show venues across America. To keep production costs low, sleeping in a sedan on the side of the road or in a hotel parking lot was not uncommon. Sometimes we didn’t have a vehicle at our disposal and would just ride in the cat circus RV, then find the cheapest motel possible when the circus called it a night. On nights when Samantha and her assistant would spring for a hotel she kindly offered us the cat RV as long as we agreed to watch the cats. Waking up surrounded by 14 felines was an affirming moment when I realized that I could transcend any allergy that life threw my way.
NFS: The world isn’t asking Samantha to become a cat trainer and bring her show to them, so she has to create every opportunity for herself, by herself. Are there similarities to your own approach in making this film?
Feiring: Arguably, there are parallels between independently making a documentary and Samantha's independent approach to building her circus. For me, this approach was born of necessity. I began this film when I was working a low paying job in a deli kitchen, before I acquired more film work to pay the bills. I had made a bunch of short films but never a feature. I love long form storytelling but grew up in the Midwest without industry connections. I realized that if I wanted to make a feature, I was going to take the indie route.
"The process of imagining can be infinitely rewarding, especially if, along the way, your own figurative circus emerges."
I coerced a co-producer, and sometimes a PA, who graciously offered us his car for long road trips, into coming along for the ride. Around year three, howevr, it became clear that I could not expect people to invest more time without compensation. I began filming predominantly as a one-man band at that point, occasionally bringing in another cinematographer and sound recordist for key sit-down interviews where controlled lighting and sound were a must.
NFS: What gear did you choose to fit this type of barebones production?
Feiring: Not ideal, but due to indie budget constraints, any camera that we could borrow or get our hands on for long stretches of time when we were on the road and that produced decent image quality was the camera of choice, as long as it was small and durable, as many of our shoots were in extremely tight spaces. As a result, we began shooting on a Cannon Xha1 and slowly, over a span of five years (as we made money for gear), we made our way through a few DSLRs and the Canon C100 /C300 as technology shifted.
While the visual shift in the video quality is gradual and subtle, because we upscaled and color-corrected the Xha1 footage to match, there is still an aesthetic difference. I believe that at least sub-textually, these differing qualities illustrate the passing of time as media evolves. While not intentional, I think that they punctuate the urgency in the film—Samantha trying to build a new career as the clock ticks. We focused our energy and limited resources on finding and/or purchasing the best possible lavs and boom mics, believing that on indie productions especially, sound is of the utmost importance.
NFS: In the film, Samantha says something to the effect of, “I’m not grown up yet. A grown up couldn’t do this…A grown up doesn’t sleep on the side of the road in a bus full of cats.” The same could be said of you! Having finished this film, what’s your advice for other filmmakers based on what you’ve learned thus far?
Feiring: You are right. I don't sleep on the side of the road with cats (anymore), but I do often with a camera. So as a non-grownup adult who is learning every day, I question whether I'm qualified to be the purveyor of advice. But as someone who appreciates words of wisdom to be taken with a grain of salt: make sure that you strongly connect with your material from the initial stages of the project. When you're deep in the editing phase after prolonged periods of production, your love of the subject and material will guide you towards completion when your brain is telling you to stop.
Also, just make things. Don't wait years for that grant or for permission, use whatever you have and make it work. Oh, and take a few cues from Samantha and don't grow up, at least not fully. It's ok to use your imagination as an adult, even if dreaming up a cat circus is not in the cards for you. I worry that sometimes we forget that, but the process of imagining can be infinitely rewarding, especially if, along the way, your own figurative circus emerges.