For 5+ years, albeit intermittently, I traveled with a cat circus filming a portrait of life on the road. The result is Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats, a feature-length documentary that follows self-taught animal trainer, Samantha Martin and America’s only traveling cat circus, The Amazing Acrocats across the country, and explores the stakes in collaborating with a cast of feline performers.
The film takes viewers from the early years when Martin traded in her day job to follow her calling and build the life that she always wanted; a life that entails living amongst 14 feline companions and dreaming up new cat tricks with which to amaze live audiences, to present day. The result is a film that will have its New York City film festival premiere in early November as part of DOC NYC.
Although this documentary features an abundance of cats, entertaining circus tricks, and an array of feline hi-jinx, what intrigued me most was the life behind the curtain. While taking a closer look at this traveling act, I observed a touching human-cat story that is as much a part of the circus fabric as the performance itself. What began as a curiosity for life lived on the road with cat circus tricksters and a cat band that play real instruments evolved into a deep respect for a highly skilled and patient trainer.
To be clear, cats often do not like to listen to their humans. Therefore, building a circus with a cast of fickle felines seems like a daunting task. As I watched Samantha train with the stars of the show, sometimes tricks would be executed perfectly, while at other times the cats would miss the mark, or rather ignore the mark completely. I observed that when tricks failed, Samantha would patiently incorporate a margin of error into her act instead of demanding a seamless show from her cat counterparts. Her priorities were articulated in the documentary when she said “What’s the point of having an animal if you don’t spend quality time with it. [Training] is an activity that you and your pet can do together.”
It is arguably a rare feat for a performance act with “circus” in the title to prioritize collaboration and a relationship with feline companions over the success of the tricks. While many circuses are known for utilizing stress inducing techniques to train animals, Samantha and The Acro-Cats reject this model completely.
As I watched Samantha traverse the country attempting to book shows, find her audience, and work her way out of debt that comes with creating a cat circus from the ground up, another conflict presented itself. The film examines how one builds a business when the priority lies in animal well being and camaraderie rather than cat trick precision and whether Martin can make it on her own terms.
Despite these potential financial pitfalls, she uncompromisingly adheres to her principles for better or for worse. Martin is a strong advocate for cat adoption and has found homes for over 200 stray cats. She practices what she preaches and uses her show platform to raise awareness about animal health and adoption.
With her guiding principles in tow when Samantha takes the stage, the outcome is never certain. Every show is a unique event that exhibits her relationship with her capricious cats.
Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats (The Documentary) will have its New York City Premiere at Doc NYC @DOCNYCFEST on November 10th 2017 at 7:15 pm.