By Laura Fraser
Directed by Zev Asher
Toronto International Film Festival entry
“Cat-lovers beware” ought to be printed on the ticket stub for Zev Asher’s new documentary. To be fair, the title does give viewers an early warning that the film is not going to be a feel-good movie.
Casuistry: the Art of Killing a Cat premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival amid a wave of controversy.
The film deals with a 2001 videotape made by Ontario Academy of Art and Design student Jesse Powers in which he and friends Anthony Wennekers and Matthew Kaczorowski strung up a cat, slit open its stomach and tortured it until it died.
Powers intended to use the video as an art project. Apparently Powers’ idea isn’t original. The documentary opens with a similar film made by Istvan Kantor in the 1980s. In Kantor’s version two cats are mutilated and used as hats.
Powers’ film is not shown; instead, court transcripts roll across the screen detailing the events in the video.The words get burned into your brain, creating horrifying images of the cat’s death.
The rest of the film revolves around one question: how do you know when an artist has gone too far? Asher has brought out varying views on the subject. Ryerson graduate Christie Blatchford’s is among them.Blatchford is outspoken in her defense of artistic license, but her assessment of Powers’ work-“crock of shit”-makes it clear she feels he has moved beyond the realm of the art world.
The most compelling views are those offered by Powers and his two friends.
None appear to regret their behaviour.The main focus of the documentary is Powers himself, who, unlike Wennekers, is self-confident and stares unflinchingly at the camera.It’s obvious that he’s the leader of the pack; his intelligence and charm express themselves through the camera as he attempts to charm the audience. Several of Powers’ other art videos are also used in the documentary.
One shows him at home with a small chicken. Powers scoops up the chicken, cuddling it to his chest as he walks over to a chopping block set up outside. He lays the chicken down and deftly cuts off its head.Even after it is decapitated, Powers holds the flapping carcass proudly until it stops twitching.The short ends with Powers biting into a cooked chicken leg.
The idea behind the video is obvious; all meat-eaters have to accept that a live animal is killed when they sit down to eat their dinner.Powers gets his point across, and so does Asher.In that moment death and art do blend into one. And for that brief second one can see Powers as more than just a cat-killer; he becomes an artist who made a mistake by stepping over the line.