Justine Pimlott is an award-winning documentary writer, director, and producer, whose work focuses on a range of social and political issues. Her latest documentary, Cat City, which chronicles the plight of Toronto’s homeless cats and the people who care for them, was released in 2009.
What prompted you to create Cat City? What kind of films have you made previously?
I am interested in making social issue films, films that educate and stimulate discussion, films about the underdog—or in this case, the undercat! The idea for Cat City literally came to my doorstep when an abandoned cat chose our front porch to live on one summer. We were unable to keep her, so I contacted a local rescue group to help us find a home. I was so impressed by the volunteers that came to help from Toronto Cat Rescue that I started to research how rescue groups work, who is involved, and the issues. As an ordinary citizen, I had no idea how it worked. I came to learn just how overwhelming and sad the plight of homeless, abandoned, and feral cats is—so, as a social activist, I had to get involved. My activism is to make documentaries that open people’s eyes, and reach as wide an audience as possible.
What message do you hope audiences take away from Cat City?
There are so many things—but if I had to choose one message, it would be for the audience to understand just how important it is to spay and neuter their pets. As one of the shelter workers says in Cat City, “you can build a shelter as big as a skyscraper, but you won’t solve the problem if people don’t spay and neuter.”
And, well, here I go choosing another message: I hope audiences understand that animals are not disposable items; they are sentient creatures that need our compassion and commitment. We can’t just treat them like a consumer item—get them on a whim, and then abandon them when it’s inconvenient to keep them. And also, in terms of feral cat populations, that TNR is the humane solution, not rounding them up and euthanizing them. So, now I have chosen three messages…
What sorts of audiences have screened the film?
I have been fortunate that Cat City was broadcast here in Canada nationwide. So, we had hundreds of thousands of people see it—a real cross-section of ordinary pet owners, rescue workers, people who might not even have a cat, but are interested in animal welfare issues. Basically a cross section of the general public—those who know about the issues and are educated about them, to those who haven’t been exposed to the issues yet, but are listening and want to know more. After the broadcast, the Cat City Facebook group swelled from 20 members to 800. Not bad, and it’s still growing. Friends in the U.S. can join the Cat City group on Facebook.
We have also had community theatre screenings of the film with a Q&A afterwards. This kind of screening is so rewarding and the effect is so immediate, when the public comes to learn, to discuss—and hopefully, to get involved to make change.
Cat City trailer. If you can’t see the video above in your email, click here to watch it on the site.
How has it been received? Were there any surprises in terms of audience reaction?
Our broadcaster told me that Cat City received the highest ratings of any of the documentaries shown on their award-winning Currents series this year. I wasn’t surprised that Cat City would touch people—I knew it would—but I wasn’t sure just how many people would tune in. So that was rewarding. But I didn’t want people to just see it and then do nothing. I really want it to be used as an educational tool for change. I want it to get out there more, get out to communities, libraries, animal welfare groups, humane societies, etc.
Can you share one or two behind-the-scenes stories from the making of Cat City with us?
The scene we filmed with Christine, when the abandoned cat Tulsa dies, was tough—a sad day for all of us. You see in the film just how emaciated and sick Tulsa was, but to be there in person and see how this sweet cat tried to rally, tried to survive, but doesn’t make it—that was hard. When Christine says, “I really hate people sometimes,” in reaction to the people who dumped Tulsa—we all relate to that sentiment. But we still have to find a way to educate people, and get them engaged to help change things. Even the people who dumped Tulsa—we need to teach them. And that’s a very big challenge when you have just dealt with the outcome of their negligence.
Are you involved with TNR yourself? If so, was this before or after your involvement with the film?
I became aware of the issues while researching the film, and making the film really politicized it for me in a new way. I am continuing to work with rescue groups, to set up screenings in which I donate part of the proceeds from the sale of the film to their efforts. And I continue to work with any rescue group that would like to organize such a public screening.
I’m not sure how long it’s been since you shot the film—has TNR in Toronto changed any since then? If so, do you see any connection between those changes and the film’s release?
TNR is now being acknowledged as the way to proceed to help solve the cat crisis. Recently, the Toronto Feral Cat Coalition was formed, an umbrella group of cat rescue organizations. The great news is that Toronto Animal Services—who were criticized in the film for not doing anything—have now stepped up to the plate to support TNR in the city, and to provide spay/neuter clinic days when rescue groups affiliated with the Coalition can bring in the cats from their colonies. Recovery and any medical issues need to still be covered by the rescue groups, but even so, this is quite a step forward for the city. And it is happening because of the efforts of the rescue groups—with Ferne Sinkins (who is in Cat City)—at the forefront! I certainly hope my film helped.
In the film, I think Joyce Smith personified much of the ambivalence surrounding TNR. On the one hand, there’s somebody who’s dedicated her life to these cats—how can anybody object to that? On the other hand, you have all the “crazy cat lady” stereotypes. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I made a very conscious decision to not go down the stereotypical crazy cat lady path with my film. Why certain people become “crazy cat ladies” is a complex issue. My film isn’t about that; it is about the activists, the issues, and the cats. When you have extreme stereotypes in a film, it gives people a reason to shut down, to not listen anymore, and to judge the messenger. It’s easy for the viewer to say, Oh, well, she’s crazy—what does she know? So the importance of the issues will get lost.
Outwardly, Joyce certainly is close to the stereotype we expect, but you see in the film that she was fiercely intelligent and articulate, and had a strong social conscience. She operated a charity, had a board of directors, had systems and volunteers in place, and the cats were not sick or uncared for. So to me, she wasn’t a “crazy cat lady.” Some members of the audience may still think so and judge Joyce, but most people got where she was coming from. I would challenge anyone to dismiss her or anyone in the film as a stereotype. I have great respect for them all.
How did her unexpected death affect you and the Cat City crew? Have all of her cats found homes yet?
I knew Joyce had health problems, but she was a force of energy—so you expected that she would always be there. She seemed invincible. When I would call her to arrange times to film she always said, “Yes, yes, come—we have to make the film.” My sense was that participating in the film gave her an incredible boost, a kind of recognition after all these years of toiling away.
So when I received the call that she had died, I was shocked and very sad. It was very strange to go to the sanctuary right after she died and not see her. It was like the trees were missing—that would be the appropriate metaphor. I really wish she could have seen the film finished—to have seen her stand up at the front of the theatre with all the other participants, taking in the applause. And then, for her to see it on national television—that would have been amazing for her. She would have loved that.
Since her death, the board of directors and volunteers continue to run the sanctuary. They found homes for at least 100 cats, but shortly after that, many new cats came in—so the cycle of rescue continues. I wish it wouldn’t. I really hope Cat City can educate people and help break the cycle.
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To purchase a copy of Cat City for $25, please visit www.catcitydocumentary.com. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Cat City will go to cat rescue groups.