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Animal Film Festival Salutes Creature Features

In an ever-more crowded film festival landscape, the Animal Film Festival offers plenty of bark and bite in addition to heartwarming fare.

Now in its fourth year, the Northern California festival will screen heartwarming rescue tales and those devoted to legal rights for the creatures among us. It will also present cash awards for short films under a new partnership with the L.A.-based Tarshis Foundation against mistreatment of animals during the Feb. 25 festivities in Grass Valley, a community north of Sacramento.

“This is a big transitional year for us,” says festival director Shelley Frost.

The organization began as a very local affair, and this year received some 230 film submissions from countries including Austria and India. The lineup includes a healthy mix of short and feature length films. Among them: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “Unlocking the Cage,” Kyle Salazar’s “The Vervet Forest,” and “Love Unleashed” from Kacey Klonsky.

“Unlocking the Cage” follows animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise as he tries to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans via lawsuits that seek to transform a chimpanzee from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with legal protections. Doc “The Vervet Forest,” meanwhile, tells the story of five orphaned infant monkeys rescued and cared for in a sanctuary in South Africa; “Love Unleashed” explores the deep emotional bond between humans and their senior dogs.

“After watching all the submissions, I began to see a similar theme in many of the films — that animals have the same inherent right to freedom that we do,” Frost says.

Other selections include “Not Your Average Cat Video,” “Called to Rescue,” and “Hope the Blind Goat.”

“If you love a good animal rescue story, you won’t want to miss this year’s selections — dogs, monkeys, bears, cats, farmed animals with many happy endings,” Frost says. She adds that festgoers will have opportunities to speak with filmmakers to learn how they can contribute toward the welfare of animals.

AFF will also screen a looping series of specially selected films for children ages 5 and up, including Gail Evenari’s “A Gift for Abuelo,” “Dog Squadron” by Toby Morris, Ahbra Perry’s “Second Chance on the Caprock,” French filmmaker Luce Grosjean’s “Singing Frogs” and “Anna,” plus “Daroji” from Indian filmmaker Sugandhi Gadadhar.

Amber and Adam Tarshis of the Tarshis Foundation are supporting the grants for five short films lasting between 30 and 90 seconds that tackle animal suffering in modern farming and promoting a plant-based diet.

The winners are PETA for “Glass of Milk in Reverse,” $5,000; “Whose Side Are You On,” shared by director Jonathan Rosenberry and Compassion Over Killing, $3,000; “Excuses,” Jamie Berger, $3,000; “Where Does Milk Come From,” Duncan Skiles, $2,000; and “What’s the Difference,” Julianne Perry, $1,000.

Frost says the Tarshis Foundation plans to keep giving the filmmaker grants. “They actually wanted to give out more awards, as we’ve had so many really creative, impactful films, and the fest is growing every year, so next year we’ll add more evening sessions and feature films.”

Beyond the festival itself, the organization has launched the Animal Film Festival Channel on Roku. Frost calls the channel, which streams top films from previous years of the festival, “a very big deal for us,” and hopes to secure additional streaming platforms.

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