ST. PETERSBURG — On Martin Luther King Jr. Day — an occasion that celebrates one of the country’s greatest champions of inclusion — a Pinellas County-funded film festival screened a movie that might have hidden symbolism promoting exclusion.
That news has angered those who say they worked on the movie without knowing about its potential meaning — and it could cost the film festival future sponsorship dollars.
The movie Koko, shown at the AMC Sundial 12 in St. Petersburg as part of the Sunshine City Film Festival, seemed innocent. It’s about a man who seeks court permission to marry his dog. It is an odd premise, said those who worked on it, but did not seem to cross a line.
But a few days before the screening, an online interview from September resurfaced on social media. The movie’s director, writer and producer Anjani Pandey of Clearwater, said the story was inspired by his negative opinion of same sex marriage. Some say he equated it to people marrying dogs.
“I got an idea to write a story for my next film which is (kind of a) warning (like showing a mirror) to the same-sex marriage supporters that by allowing same-sex marriage they open the door (to) possibilities of marriage between human and animal, too,” Pandey told the The Movie Blog website. The parentheses were published in the quote.
Koko won the Audience Choice Award at the Sunshine City Film Festival and is scheduled for Orlando’s Central Florida Film Festival this weekend.
Clearwater’s Alex Vincent is among those who worked on the movie without being informed of its possible symbolism. He said same sex marriage is never directly mentioned in the film.
“The story was absurd from the get-go,” Vincent, the movie’s sound mixer, told the Tampa Bay Times. Vincent is best known for portraying Andy Barclay in the Child’s Play movies, but now owns a recording studio in Clearwater.
“But the main character says throughout the movie that this is not sexual,” Vincent said. “He is not a pervert, he says. He just loves his dog. It was silly but innocent. The message as I understood it is that love is love. Now I learn that the message is hate. I’m disgusted. I would never have worked on it if I had known.”
Vincent’s opinion was echoed on Facebook by cast and crew.
“I worked on this film and at no time did he tell me this was a satire or commentary on gay marriage,” sound recordist Chuck Terzian wrote. “If I had known he had this agenda, I wouldn’t have been involved.”
A representative from the Sunshine City Film Festival told the Times that they support “diversity and inclusion and we do not take position on any film selected. The views and opinions expressed by any filmmaker on any media or social platform do not reflect the views and opinions of the Sunshine City Film Festival.”
The festival received a $2,000 sponsorship from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Film Commission that operates as part of Pinellas County’s Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tourism arm. Film commissioner Tony Armer said he will “have a conversation” with the festival “about their plans for inclusive programming moving forward prior to any new potential sponsorship for future years.”
Actress Kelly Thompson was part of the project for two months before leaving for personal reasons. She too was shocked to read Padney’s interview.
“Using marrying a dog in correlation to same sex marriage is degrading and awful,” Thompson said. “Nobody I knew on set knew that was the moral of the story. Don’t blame cast and crew.”
Pandey told the Times that the interview is being misinterpreted, but then repeated the sentiment that has angered some cast and crew.
“It is not equating” marrying a dog to same sex marriage, Pandey said, but added, “It is where I got the idea of man getting married to a dog. That is the inspiration for the story.”
He did not deny he was against same sex marriage.
“That is my personal belief,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I hate anyone.”
New Port Richey-based filmmaker Rick Danford did not work on Koko, but said he has friends who did without knowing the movie might have hidden symbolism.
They are “furious,” Danford said. “He can make a statement film about pretty much whatever he likes. That’s the beauty of freedom of speech. But when you purposefully lie to those you bring on about what the true meaning of the film is, only to declare it after the fact, that’s dirty pool and deceitful. Now their names are attached to that project when they wholeheartedly disagree with the views and opinions this film represents.”