‘Be My Cat: A Film for Anne’ Is Peak Found Footage
July 1st, 2022 | By Violet Burns
There’s nothing like low budget indie found footage. Real life isn’t shiny like the movies, so found footage is the great equalizer. It’s accessible to a huge swath of filmmakers who don’t have money, experience, or industry connections — voices we might not otherwise hear from. But I hate the assumption that found footage is made out of begrudging necessity, as a stepping stone or stop gap measure on the way to a future narrative film. “Why would anyone make a found footage film if they had the means to do otherwise?”
Found footage filmmakers deserve far more credit than they get, and many of them approach their craft with just as much (if not sometimes more) intentionality than traditional narrative filmmakers. The subgenre deserves to be celebrated for its radical possibilities, many of which we’ve yet to explore. While I’m not above jump scares or CGI monsters, the magic of found footage horror lies in its unique ability to simulate emotional authenticity. When approached creatively and with intention, found footage can be an incredible medium for high-concept genre filmmaking on a minimal budget. A found footage film lives and dies in verisimilitude, and you couldn’t buy that if you tried.
A film for Anne
Adrian Țofei’s Be My Cat: A Film for Anne (2015), the first found footage film from Romania, is a tour-de-force of deeply uncomfortable psychological horror. Be My Cat is a uniquely powerful film, and I will freely admit to being a Țofei-obsessed evangelist. When I discovered that Țofei had written a found footage manifesto, I began devouring everything I could find online about the film’s production.
Writer/Director Adrian Țofei plays a director obsessed with Anne Hathaway, who’s determined to convince the American starlet to ditch Hollywood for his small Romanian town to star in a film he’s writing just for her. Țofei’s character feels a deep connection to his idealized version of Anne Hathaway, and he feels entitled to access to her. He fantasizes about the godlike figure she’ll become under his direction, parodying the auteur.
Directly into the camera, his proxy for Anne, Țofei’s character makes his case:
I deserve you on all levels. I deserve you as an actor, as a producer, as a man, everything. I deserve you, Anne. I deserve this right now as an actor because I’m making this sacrifice for this role. I would never do anything like that in real life. If you don’t understand this, then you’re not a real actress. But I’ve seen your acting, and I know you.
To prove himself worthy of Anne, he invites three Romanian actresses (Sonia Teodoriu, Florentina Hariton, and Alexandra Stroe) to his hometown of Rădăuți to showcase his acting and directing skills. The actresses think he’s making a real movie and that Țofei is documenting the behind-the-scenes experience. Unfortunately for these unlucky actresses, it’s impossible to be Anne, and they’ll be punished for falling short. The fake film is about a director making a movie too, so there are a lot of layers: it’s essentially a movie within a movie within a movie.
First take fears
In the real world, Țofei began constructing the fictional world months in advance, laying the groundwork for what he calls a “self-sustained fictional reality.” To more fully embody his reclusive, agoraphobic character, he moved back into his childhood home with his actual mother (who appears in the film) in rural Romania. Living in character, he isolated himself for almost a year, rarely leaving the house. He posted online ads for actresses and launched crowdfunding campaigns to purchase the camera and laptop for editing.
Țofei emailed back and forth with the actresses for months to prepare them for the unique experience to come. He provided them with a list of potential goals or motivations for their characters to pursue (beyond starring in their first film) but asked them to keep these to themselves until they were revealed through improvisation on camera. The goal was to explore intense emotions within the constraints of the world the cast created together.
They met in-person for the first time on camera and in-character, which came as a surprise to the actresses, but the framework was already in place for them to roll with the punches after Țofei greeted them in English. The nerves and awkwardness of their first meetings are palpable: we feel the actresses’ hesitations and cringe at their nervous laughter as they get a feel for the situation in which they’ve found themselves. Although he shot twenty-five hours of footage (as it says in the film’s intro) and recorded multiple takes of some scenes, only first takes made the film. There might have been more polished takes than those included in the final cut, but Țofei realized that the authenticity of an organic experience cannot be replicated. This approach is the source of both the film’s magic and its consuming dread.
Found footage fantasies
Concerned audiences of Be My Cat are frequently convinced that Țofei’s character must be an extension of the real Țofei’s inner nature. No one could treat actresses like that on camera if there weren’t some truth to the deranged monstrosity. Fortunately, Țofei and the actresses communicated extensively in advance, and they established an ingenious linguistic safety system. When they spoke in English, it could be assumed they were in character; if they switched to Romanian, they could communicate freely as themselves in case anything got out of hand.
The more I learned about Țofei’s background and philosophy, the more the intense audience reactions to the film made sense. Be My Cat explicitly explores the toxic gendered power dynamics that sometimes manifest between director and actress on set. The director seeks idealized feminine perfection, is inspired by it and driven to new creative heights, but no flesh and blood actress can ever live up to this ideal. Țofei has created a space for these dynamics to play out to their ultimate conclusion, and it hurts to watch, but it’s important to sit with this kind of pain.
While meta-cinema often comes across as pretentious or twee, this no-budget, hyper-realistic horror flick is anything but pert. Țofei blurs the lines between reality and fantasy so effectively that viewers experience serious emotional whiplash, which quickly descends into self-loathing on the part of the viewer: what the fuck am I watching? Are these women okay? It’s too real. Each watch elicits genuine concern for these incredible actresses, one of whom actually calls the police while in character, which only adds to the chaos.
Although it feels effortless, Be My Cat’s hyperrealism and the electric tension it creates is carefully crafted. Țofei’s incredible embodiment of the character, which carries the film, is the product of his dedication to craft. His actress-obsessed Director character emerged as a monologue in acting school, which he later developed into a successful one-man show called Monster. He had years of marinating in some form of this character’s psychology before pivoting his extreme method acting techniques from theater to film.
Many found footage films are fully scripted with every detail meticulously pre-planned, while others are improvised based on a treatment or looser outline (to varying results). Let’s not conflate improvisation with laziness: great improvisation doesn’t burst into being from nothing. In spite and perhaps because of the limited resources at their disposal, great found footage filmmakers intentionally shape the material and psychological conditions of production to elicit hyper-realistic performances from their actors. When the conditions are right, focused improvisation can deliver unparalleled psychological and emotional realism that makes great found footage feel so dangerously alive.
Detractors deride the whole concept of found footage as an artificial conceit, but what’s wrong with that? All movies are artificial because we make them. There’s always an elephant in the room: we always know we’re watching something on a screen, something filmed. Traditional narrative films just refuse to acknowledge how we got there, and that works great a lot of the time.
But sometimes something special happens when we get the conceit out of the way. Explaining how we’re seeing what we’re seeing can free up space for a different kind of emotional experience. It’s scary when the seams are on the outside. You found these tapes at a crime scene, and you’re choosing to watch them. You did this to yourself. Once you’re in, you’re in. There are no illuminated exit signs. There’s no getting off this ride.