She was born a dwarf and has no teeth. She has extra toes on her feet. Her tongue permanently sticks out. You can purchase T-shirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags adorned with her face in Che Guevara-like profile. She has a new book on the way, and fans all over the world. She’s Lil’ Bub, “the most famous cat on the Internet,” and star of a new documentary, “Lil Bub and Friendz,” premiering April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Directed by Juliette Eisner and Andy Capper, and distributed by Vice, the documentary follows Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky, as they traverse the country, popping in on strangers and melting hearts everywhere they go. Along the way, the film explores the world of Internet cat memes, focusing on such looming legends as Grumpy Cat and Keyboard Cat.
But the question remains: Are grainy self-made cat videos more than just a distraction? Is meme culture a subject worthy of an entire documentary?
For Eisner, the decision to make the film “was a lot about falling in love with Bub right away,” she said in a phone conversation, “and also kind of realizing this whole cat phenomenon was much larger than I ever realized.”
And large it is. When the filmmakers accompanied Bub to the Internet Cat Video Film Festival at the Walker Art Center in August 2012, they expected to find a few hundred people, max. Instead, they were joined by thousands of people, some of whom had traveled from countries on the other side of the world, all to sit in a theater and watch a few hours of cat videos on a big screen. Eisner described the scene as having a “Woodstock vibe,” and the excitement among the cheering crowds proved that the story of Lil’ Bub was one worth exploring.
The filmmakers traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, where Bridavsky runs a music studio, and where Bub was born. A friend’s sister was having trouble finding a home for Bub, and so Bridavksy took her in. Because of Bub’s various health issues, most people thought it would be too hard to care for her. But once people come face to face with Bub, the documentary makes clear, it’s impossible to stay away.
“She has this punch-in-the-stomach reaction. People go nuts when they see her,” Eisner said. “She has this really unique look, and you see her and you’re not sure if you’re looking at a cartoon animal or an alien cat. You just want to keep looking at her.”
“I really do think she has this weird power that brings people to her,” Eisner added. “People just want more of her every time they see her.”
But if you scratch the surface of celebrity cat culture, is there anything underneath? The danger in making a documentary of this nature is constructing a top-down view of your subject. In “Lil’ Bub and Friendz,” the people behind the memes are never portrayed as loners to be ridiculed – the film highlights the way the Internet can build a subculture, and how that subculture can suddenly be accepted by the mainstream.
“I do think that what these people are doing is extremely interesting,” Eisner said. “It’s great. These people – all of the cat owners – are doing something that’s kind of unheard of and is going to start to get bigger and bigger as time goes on. These people have created celebrities out of cats, through the Internet. These cats are selling more merchandise than certain indie bands.”
But ultimately, this is all just context for the story of one cat, the runt of the litter who overcame all odds on her way to the top. And, in case you were wondering, Bub is now totally healthy. She plans to be at the premiere, walking the red carpet, basking in the glow of her newfound fame.