Aspen Shortsfest: ‘Squirrel Wars’ explores an unlikely political battleground
Documentary will have its world premiere at the virtual Aspen Shortsfest
What: ‘Squirrel Wars’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Eventive via aspenfilm.org
When: Program Two; Streaming April 6-11
How Much: $15/single program; $60/Five Program Pass; $150/Full Virtual Pass; $250/VIP Pass; $45/student pass
What if the most politically incisive cultural artifact of 2020 turns out to be a 9-minute documentary about cute squirrels and the online communities devoted to them?
Once you watch director Jill Morley’s “Squirrel Wars,” which will make its world premiere at the virtual Aspen Shortsfest next week, you may be willing to consider the possibility. If you lived through recent American history, you may find yourself unsurprised by the fact that fan pages for adorable squirrels transformed, in 2020, into bitter political war grounds where actual Nazis emerged.
Such is the surreal experience of our moment in time, its hideousness and absurdity captured with a welcome eccentric charm in “Squirrel Wars.”
“Some squirrel people are not the best people,” Billie Madley, the quirky center of the film, explains.
An art director, burlesque performer and “keeper of the nuts” squirrel enthusiast, Madley has over the past decade turned her Manhattan apartment into a clubhouse for neighborhood squirrels. Devoting time and love to the hobby, she has trained the naturally skittish animals to the point where she can pet them, play with them, and bond in the way we’re used to seeing people connect with dogs or cats.
Online she connected with fellow squirrel lovers, a subculture that seems similar in spirit to the cat meme crowd but with proudly off-kilter tastes in their furry friends. The biggest Facebook group devoted to squirrel pictures and videos, by last year, counted 54,000 members, Madley as a prominent among them.
As Americans went off the rails in the late Trump era amid the pandemic and the 2020 election season, a proxy war took over Madley’s online squirrel community. Nazis and white supremacists used squirrels to propagandize, and every political faction found squirrels and memes for their cause, splintering into Trump supporting Confederate flag wavers and the more progressive set with Biden, rainbow and Black Lives Matter paraphernalia.
Madley got caught in the middle of it all.
“It was America,” she says in the film. “It was exactly where we are at.”
Morley, best known for her feature documentary “Fight Like a Girl” and for her late-blooming boxing career, had featured Madley in her first documentary – 2001’s “Stripped” – and had stayed in touch with her in the years since. In recent years she’d regaled the filmmaker with her tales of domesticating squirrels and shared videos. When the squirrel wars broke out, her documentarian’s instincts kicked in.
“She told me she had been a part of this huge blow-up and I was like, ‘God, this should be on the news,’” she recalled. “People should be writing about this and talking about it.”
Looking at the film now, she sees it as representative of the moment when the pandemic’s pressures and the country’s bitter political divisions began to boil over.
“It is a time capsule of 2020 and the pandemic and being stuck in your home and getting obsessed with weird things on the computer,” Morley said. “And then getting in fights with people on the computer.”
The production itself is also a product of its time. Filmed in summer 2020 when New York remained under strict public health restrictions barring indoor gatherings and most film production, Morley directed the film remotely from Los Angeles. She hired a cinematographer who lives in Madley’s neighborhood to shoot Madley with her squirrels, in the park and in the interviews, which Morley conducted via Facetime.
After Shortsfest, “Squirrel Wars” is slated to play Hot Docs in late April and continue its festival run. From there, Morley hopes to find a wider audience for it. Meanwhile, the filmmaker has a feature-length screenplay in development and is working on her third feature documentary, a personal narrative and investigation of the unsolved 1996 disappearance of reporter and exotic dancer Susan Walsh, who was a friend to Morley.
Though “Squirrel Wars” has not yet screened publicly, Morley is encouraged by the feedback she has heard so far from friends she’s shared it with – both conservative and progressives, she said, have embraced it.
“I feel like it’s nonpartisan,” she said. “I know people who are conservative who just think it’s hilarious, because this film is just the truth. It’s just how it is these days.”
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While the rest of the festival’s performance program was announced in the spring, the opening concert by the Festival Orchestra had remained blank.