You couldn't have asked for a more gorgeous afternoon on Saturday, April 23rd. Despite strong winds, it was a tolerable compromise for some 80 degree temperatures. Restaurants in Downtown Dubuque were jammed. Folks were congregating on outdoor patios. And the love of movies was nigh as Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (JDIFF) was in day four of five.

It was my first time at a film festival, an in-person one at least. My only regret is not being able to make it out there another day. That will change next year.

The beautiful thing about a film festival is that everyone is there to embrace cinema. JDIFF has numerous hotels and venues screening movies, as well as opportunities for networking and general camaraderie to take place in between showtimes. I experienced a mere sliver of what it had to offer, but what I saw left me satisfied and hungry for more.

I'll recount two documentaries I caught, including one that hit very close to home.

Photo Credit: Steve Pulaski
Photo Credit: Steve Pulaski
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Cat Daddies:

Cat Daddies was a gentle documentary about male cat-owners. It told the stories of a handful of people from all different walks of life who have found companionship through cats. One man was the proud owner of four and has become something of a viral sensation making videos with his cats. Another was homeless, struggling to find a shelter that would take him and his trusted companion, Lucky. Director Mye Hoang was in attendance and initiated a fun Q&A at the end. Hoang also gave away a couple bandanas that said "my daddy loves me."

My cats don't know how close they came to sharing that bandana had I been lucky enough to get one.

When it comes to representation of disenfranchised groups of people, single male cat-owners rank relatively low on the list of significance, I realize. However, it was more than a little pleasant to see images of affectionate men loving and caring for cats without it being positioned for humor. Cats aren't afforded the same luxury of screen-time and film franchises as their dog counterparts either.

While distribution hasn't been secured for Cat Daddies, I think it's only a matter of time before a studio snatches this one up. It'll be great comfort viewing for animal lovers, particularly those like me who are tried and true cat people for life.

Joe238:

Photo Credit: Steve Pulaski
Photo Credit: Steve Pulaski
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Then there was Joe238, a documentary I sprang for on a whim, knowing absolutely nothing about it. The fun of a film festival is playing roulette, so to speak, taking a flyer on a movie and going in completely blind.

Joe238 told the story of Officer Joe Chairez, a Sacramento Police Officer who died after having a seizure on duty. The title is a reference to Joe's badge number. The documentary revolved around Chairez's parents, specifically his father, Jess, who has gone on to keep the memory of his late 24-year-old son alive.

Joe was an organ donor, initially to the chagrin of his father. Jess went on to recognize that Joe could help people after he was gone through the process of organ donation. While it took time for him to realize why his son made the sacrifice, Jess comes to realize that his son's selfless move coupled with his own devotion to keeping his son's memory alive at various donor conventions could work hand-in-hand.

The documentary also spotlights his fiancée at the time, who was all but sidelined from the media coverage upon Chairez's death. It wasn't anything truly personal. But it's the fact of life when you're the "fiancée" and not the wife of a fallen officer. Joe238 affords her ample screen-time to talk about her grieving process as well as her new marriage, which understandably took a long time to manifest.

Joe238 has been making the rounds at festivals around the country for the last couple of years. Beyond being a family's personal story, its observations on grief are indeed universal. Its insights into organ donation, learning to carry on while carrying a lost loved one with you, and how death can bring about a change in one's perspective are all captured in a movie that's a minute shy of being 60 minutes. It sneaks up on you with some emotional power.

Photo Credit: Steve Pulaski
Photo Credit: Steve Pulaski
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The tough part with any film festival is acknowledging the fact that access to many of these movies is limited at the moment. Many are still seeking distribution from studios, which may or may not come. Having said that, nothing incentivizes people to come out quite like exclusivity.

To see so many great films play at JDIFF and to know the new area in which I belong has something like this so close by is heartwarming. Seeing hundreds of people gather and embrace cinema was the icing on the cake.

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