By: Ben Levinson
Director: Brett Hanover
Runtime: 86 mins | Genre: Documentary, Drama
In Rukus, people detach. They place layers of abstraction between what they feel and how they would like to be seen. It’s a necessary mechanism that’s inherent to all communication. As with the thick, matted, colorful hair that covers the faces of the furries at the heart of Rukus, distortion and obfuscation can sometimes be what helps us speak at all.
When filmmaker Brett Hanover attends a furry convention at a nearby Holiday Inn, he is met with confusion by several friends. “What is it with you and these weird fetish subcultures,” Hanover’s close friend Robin teasingly prods. Hanover shrugs, downplaying his personal investment, playing it off as merely a creative, intellectual pursuit: “they’re really interesting.” It’s unconvincing. If “they’re really interesting” remained the thematic thrust of Rukus, we might end up with a curiosity-driven documentary that ends up pathologizing its subjects, the kind one expects from Vice. But Hanover’s earnest relationship to the queer subculture of his subjects becomes apparent as he takes his subjects and collaborators at face value. Throughout the film, he avoids sensationalizing them, instead fully interrogating their niche interests as intertwined elements of their full personhood.
Rukus blends a talking head format with multiple modes of scripted storytelling, including staged interviews, scenes, reenactments, montages, and animated sequences. Gluing these together is a low-budget aesthetic and approach—amateur acting, non-spectacular locations and set design, grainy footage—that make everything feel equally off-the-cuff but attractive nonetheless. Talented but seemingly untutored acting intermingles with uncomfortable and candid interview subjects (“Is this thing rolling? I didn’t realize this was rolling the whole time,” says one participant). In multiple instances, this happens only for us to realize by the scene’s end that the actors have been delivering lines, and acting all along. Fictive elements thoroughly fold into the film’s non-fiction sources, and a subtle sleight of hand is drawn out across its duration: the film could just as easily be scripted and written from scratch, as it could have been sourced from a biographical period in Hanover’s life.
This blurring of document and fiction would not in-and-of-itself be profound if, by doing so, Rukus wasn’t formally reproducing its central theme of self-protective distance. The film—at times a film about making films—adequately buries any non-fiction elements in a plausibly fictive narrative, allowing a space to speak about taboo topics honestly. By maintaining a distance, Hanover can deliver vulnerable stories about sexuality-in-question, personal neuroses, and self-harm. It is irrelevant to us how much of that truth is reflective of reality outside of the film because the space it opens up becomes valuable.
Rukus is born of the usefulness of experimental storytelling for creating one’s own space. This is reflected by the film’s namesake character, Rukus, who uses his art to process his childhood trauma. His work is supposedly exceedingly popular within furry fandom, a culture he is defensively dismissive of (“I’ve seen some pretty fucked-up, funny shit in [the furry forums],” he says at one point). When asked about his work, he bashfully refuses that it can be formally reduced to manga, insisting that it is a more complex, nuanced world and story he has built through a multifaceted project. Rukus makes the case that the formation of such detached, mediated modes of processing otherwise vulnerable feelings can be especially important to marginalized queer experiences. The story of this character is one about the difficulty of maintaining a protective distance without fully and destructively isolating oneself.
Another relationship, that between Hanover and his friend Robin, highlights a more productive experimental form of communication and growth. Robin helps Hanover with his O.C.D. through acts of impromptu D.I.Y. exposure therapy: first she lodges her toes in his nose after receiving explicit consent, then, in a later scene, she has him place his bare feet against her “pee feet,” apparently breaking his compulsion to lace up before any trip to the restroom, opening the door sole-to-doorknob every time. Hanover returns the favor by domming her in exploratory BDSM, Robin’s interest in which we suppose relates to an established connection between self-esteem, self-harm, and sexuality. Between this exploration and the film’s treatment of its even more-often casually pathologized subject, furry fetish culture, Rukus shows a deep engagement with something like experimental sublimation in queer life: the transformation of inaccessible or not-yet-known desires into niche cultural practices (furry fandom and cosplay) or, vice-versa, the therapeutic possibilities of acts that we recognize as inherently sexual (because they take place in the bedroom or in the closet) to work through our pre-sexual histories.
Experimentation within relationships is bound to the practice of experimental filmmaking. In a gesture that transcends what might otherwise merely come off as a clever exercise, Rukus creates its own space and honors experimental filmmaking (including D.I.Y. approaches to distribution and sharing: small festivals, free online sharing) as a niche space for engagement with vulnerable, precarious topics.