Early in Rukus, the directorial debut from filmmaker Brett Hanover, a friend he is interviewing asks him a question and the shot switches to show the director. It’s at this moment that we realize this film isn’t the documentary that it opens as, but it’s also not quite a narrative drama. Are we watching something real, or something invented? This conflict is at the heart of the film, a mostly successful piece of mixed media cinema that explore notions of who we are and how we create the ways that people see us.
At first glance, Rukus is a film about furries, but if you’re looking for a more sensational tale of America’s most misunderstood fetish subculture, this isn’t it. Rather, the community becomes the backdrop of a story about a loose-knit group of friends brought together by this common thread. This is a coming-of-age story that could be set amongst many other alienated groups and many queer people would feel at home in this film. Characters struggle with mental illness; explore BDSM, asexuality, and queerness; and go to house shows in punk houses so cluttered and messy that I started having flashbacks to my college years.
The success of the film lies in the ways that Hanover weaves together various media to tell the story, framed around the life and death of his friend and collaborator Rukus. A fixture in the furry scene of the early aughts, Rukus claims to be a god of the fandom. Hanover employs every medium available to him to make Rukus feel like a mysterious force of nature. The film features excerpts from plays, dramatic reenactments, readings of AIM messages and forum posts, and animated sequences mixed in with sit-down interviews with people who actually knew Rukus as well as home video footage shot by Rukus himself.
The film constantly breaks the fourth, fifth, and even the sixth wall, blending fictional elements with real life footage. Soon, it becomes difficult to tell reality from fiction. This confusion hearkens back to the difficulty many of us face when discovering who we are. Many queer people either have to or get to create their own persona. Even though Hanover and Rukus only meet in person a handful of times, they become confidants. From across the country, Rukus opens up to Hanover about his creative struggles working on a furry manga inspired by his own personal struggles, they talk about relationship and sexuality issues, they talk about the furry fandom.
In a particularly striking scene, Rukus relays the trauma from his past to Hanover. This scene struck a chord for me. With the advent of forums and the internet, many of us are able to experiment with identity in low-risk ways and open ourselves up to people who don’t know us very well, but also aren’t geographically close enough to really affect our lives in serious ways. That Hanover is able to so accurately portray these things is a result of his ability to switch between narrative formats. This storytelling technique is the high point of the film.
If the film suffers, it is only in minor ways. The performances can be a little stiff, but Hanover has cast real people from his life, so this is only to be expected. The film does become unfocused as it weaves between telling Hanover’s personal journey and recounting the life of Rukus. And, as to be expected with any low budget film, there are certain elements, especially in the costumed dreamlike sequences exploring Rukus’s childhood state of mind, that just don’t quite hit the mark. However, in the dreamlike metanarrative that Hanover tells, it’s hard to be overly critical about these things. Reality is supposed to feel surreal, and in that way, these things succeed.
What starts as a film about remembering a lost friend and the furry fandom turns out to be a work of art about the ways that we create art and ourselves. The film explores a world that has been treated unkindly in most portrayals and lays it bare and honest. In clumsier hands, the shifts between format could be jarring, but Hanover manages to create a lo-fi, punk-rock ode to his own coming-of-age, and in so doing, creates a fitting tribute to a friend whose own reality was tenuous at best.
Rukus will be streaming in its entirety beginning on October 10th, 2019. You can watch the film at rukusmovie.com.
Julian Modugno is a writer and humorist based out of Chicago, IL. He hates everything you love and won't be happy until it's destroyed and you're left with nothing. You can follow him on instagram @historysgreatestmonster.