Watch: A Pet Turtle’s Pursuit of Happiness in “Snowy”

Alex Wolf Lewis and Kaitlyn Swalje were filmmakers who decided to make a movie. After spending Thanksgiving together, Snowy became a pet turtle. Their short documentary is both an investigation into animal happiness and an intervention to improve one turtle’s life.

SnowyThis is comedy. There seems to be an even deeper meaning.

Alex It’s easy to take life for granted. It’s even easier to fall into habits and lose sight of the fact that we’re surrounded by incredible people, each a human-shaped time capsule full of story and experience. We’d hoped that Snowy, an insignificant little thing on the order of life forms, could be an accessible way to realize that there’s always room to better understand life experiences outside our own, whether it’s your grandmother, neighbor, or a pet turtle.

Kaitlyn There’s also something to takeaway from Uncle Larry’s character that we haven’t fully teased out ourselves. Larry assumed that he was right for Snowy even though he did not have all the facts. One, Larry fed Snowy nutritious meals and kept his tank clean. Snowy lived in cold basement with no sunlight or warmth. It was not the ideal environment for a cold-blooded creature. Maybe the moral is that it’s easy to convince ourselves we’re doing right by someone or something, but when more information presents itself we realize what we’re offering is woefully inadequate.

Alex When working together or coming up with ideas, Kaitlyn and I very much subscribe to the philosophy of YES…AND. Sometimes it’s crazy. We even floated the idea of opening the film with Larry reading from a cue card in broken French, “I am the owner of a small pet turtle. I am being forced to read this against my will…” While all ideas are worth trying, not all ideas are good. We feel at home in our families’ dry, morbid senses of humor. Uncle Larry and the entire family are funny. It’s like going to Thanksgiving with them. Uncle Larry died last year from laughter too much.

KaitlynThis story, for Snowy, is tragic, perhaps even horror movie. For the audience and for us, it’s a comedy. There’s humor in this contrast.

What role did the pandemic play in the creation of SnowyWhich?

KaitlynProduction was finished just minutes before lockdown. Alexander Heringer and Katharina Stroh, originally from Germany, were returning home to review the production and were unable to leave behind the travel ban. We ended up working remotely for all post-production. Too many zoom calls were made and too much video conferencing technology was used to the limit.

The first epidemic was in winter and our coloring sessions took place in middle of winter. We were still washing the groceries in the tub. Filipp Kotsishevskiy set up an outdoor monitor and covered the windows in trash bags. We communicated by speaker phone.

Alex We didn’t intend to make a movie about being in lockdown, but the film helped us make it through that first scary year of the pandemic by keeping us distracted. The turtle Snowy was an inspiration and a friend. He was capable of surviving 25 years in a prison cell. We imagine that we can make it to lockdown.

Is it because turtles are so beloved? Which turtles do you think is the best pop-culture icon?

Alex What’s the deal with turtles? It’s still unknown why there are so many turtle lovers. Maybe it’s their calm disposition that’s refreshing to be around? These house pets are truly the anti-dog. This question was a difficult one to answer. Filburt is the answer.Rocko’s Modern Life), Grand Master Oogway (Kung Fu Panda), Bowser, Squirtle, Leonardo (TMNTFranklin. Surely, there’s a Jeopardy question hidden in this fictional turtle question…

What’s the most surprising bit of science you learned making this film?

KaitlynSurprised to see how well-aware turtles can be about their surroundings, we were shocked. For decades, they have been misunderstood because of their inability to function under cold conditions. Turtles don’t do much of anything when they’re cold and the conclusion from these experiments was that turtles are sluggish and mostly unresponsive. These misconceptions were corrected by Dr. Anna Wilkinson who is a turtle expert. She told us that Snowy is able to recognize Uncle Larry’s face and his voice. Larry, as you can see, was delighted to learn this. The memory of turtles is stored for at most 18 months.

AlexDr. Wilkinson recounted a fascinating story of a female bearded Dragon found in an abandoned box deep in the woods. Her tail was missing large portions. She was missing a large chunk of her tail for the first two years of the study. Every time that a Northern English-speaking male student spoke around the animal she got really upset. This suggests the ability to link a voice with someone and to have negative experiences.

Are you currently a pet owner? Any from your childhood that you’d like to tell us about?

KaitlynIt was clear that I was working on bad house pet karma. Snowy. My track record in keeping small animals alive as a child was terrible. Budweiser the bullfrog died from starvation in his plastic bag. I had to take him back to the pet shop. My dog ate a lot of the newts and killed fish, including unfed sea monkeys and fish that were caught in a tank with a broken filter. If you weren’t a dog or a human, my childhood home was a house of horrors. If they survived to see their birthdays, it was a remarkable feat of willpower. I had to write this Snowy story in order to find redemption.

Alex We don’t have any pets currently, but we had a memorable one not so long ago. Our roommate had just finished his PhD on neuroscience topics related to memory three years prior. He found that one of the rats in his laboratory was not cooperative when he brought them all to him. He decided to euthanize the rat because he was not motivated by reward or that he would resist training. Our roommate made the death certificate of the rat’s victim and took him back to his home wearing a motorcycle helmet. Three years was spent with Noam Chompsky, or Fifi as it is sometimes called. He was allowed to roam the property free of charge, and we built country homes out of cardboard. We still have holes from his sneaking into our laundry basket, though he was clean-eyed.

Is it possible to tell the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?

Kaitlyn The answer to this depends on what side of the Atlantic you’re on. Americans commonly refer to turtle as tortoise. Brits, however, use tortoise to describe both turtles and tortoises. I’m realizing as I type that we haven’t clarified anything. Let’s just say turtle, to be safe. Although all tortoises can be turtles, they are not all turtles.

Snowy was the world’s premiere film at Sundance, 2021. The film is a Critics’ Choice Award Nominee for Best Short Documentary and included among the 2021 Doc NYC Short List Shorts

-Justine Simons

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