Photo of the audience at the film’s Roxie premier by Paul To.
“It starts from a love of the cute and furry animals,” explained filmmaker Amy Do, director of Docfest’s Rabbit Fever. “Kids start with them as pets, and it just keeps growing.” The Appeal chatted with Amy before the premier of her documentary Sunday night at the Roxie, and asked her the same question that absolutely everyone must: why on Earth have you made a movie about competitive teenage rabbit breeding?
But upon viewing the utterly charming film, the answer is clear: these kids are FASCINATING. What kind of young person dedicates themselves not only to the delicate genetic nudges of animal breeding, but also the intense competitive scrutiny of the Westminster of rabbit shows? A very unusual kind indeed.
For a movie about teens, mentions of parties and recklessness and bashful romance are vanishingly few. Instead, we see a portrait of five near-adults with single-minded determination to outperform each other in a test of rabbit-related knowledge, all of whom are prone to nervous rambling and glances. A comparison to their animals, which have been also been meticulously primed over many years for the single purpose of competitive showmanship, is not difficult to make.
Jenna is from Texas, and controls every conversation; her main rival, a Californian named Jessica, is quiet and focused on the health of her animals. Paula often seems concerned; Jeremy is facing a choice between his rabbits and his education with great melancholy; and Johnny from Pennsylvania, whose other interests include musical theater, nonchalantly observes that rabbit breeding is “not very masculine.” They are nerds when it comes to rabbits, but they don’t mind; and neither does the gentle tone of the film, which gladly joins in their enthusiasm.
In fact, all participants happily admit that their vocation — it’s far too demanding to be called a hobby — is a little weird to outsiders. But maybe it’ll be a little less so with the release of this film; the national community of rabbit fanciers, we learn, is surprisingly large. The American Rabbit Breeders Association has 30,000 members. Sixty-four thousand rabbits were filmed during the making of Rabbit Fever. Applications for youth competitions have grown by the thousands. We ourselves are not immune to the lure of rodent fancy. So how weird is it really?
One of the things that struck us about the film is how different breeding seemed from pet ownership. The animals at these shows are poked and examined with a medical dispassion, and their couplings are anything but random. (The audience at the Roxie audibly gasped at a scene in which a breeder facilitated the fertilization of a doe.) Within the confines of the competition, these animals are more like DNA-containers than companions.
But there’s more to it than that — after all, if these kids were only interested in building the perfect machine, they’d have gone into computer science. (And in fact, over the course of the film, one of them does exactly that.) There are signs of affection and concern for the animals, such as when Jessica forgives a rabbit that scratched her neck by reflecting upon the rigors of competition, “that’s a lot to ask of a rabbit.”
It’s true, that is lot to ask of a rabbit; but at least they were bred for it. At the end of the competition, some of the teens are in a starry-eyed winner’s haze, others fight tears, and a few of the veterans face an uncertain life beyond high school agriculture programs. That’s a lot to ask of a rabbit fancier.