There’s a chance you’ve met Kelvin Peña. You may know him as the “deer whisperer” or, as he dubs himself, “the Dominican Snow White.” Back in August 2016, Kelvin’s videos of him hanging out with a number of deer near his backyard in Eastern Pennsylvania went viral. Watching them you immediately understand why. Whether feeding the deer powdered donuts or playing basketball around them, Kelvin is endlessly watchable, coming up with his own catchphrases (“Everybody eats!”) at the drop of a hat, and being hilariously up front about the names he’s chosen for his deer squad. As he says in the documentary short Deer Squad: The Movie, “I named him Money because straight off the dome it’s the first thing that came to my mind because I love money and I felt like I love the deer.”
The short doc, which screens as part of the Sundance Film Festival this year, was produced by the filmmaker trio that make up Public Cinema Club, Pipus Larsen, Kenneth Gug, Scott J. Ross. Based in Philadelphia these three friends found themselves making, as Kenneth told Remezcla, dumb silly videos for Instagram, the type of spontaneous and low-budget videos you so often see going viral on social media. It was only when they decided to find a way to brand them that they came up with Public Cinema Club. True to its tagline, “Cinema made for public views,” their work is defined by low-key approach to filmmaking. In Scott’s words, “The thing that brought us all together is that we have a shared sense of humor and we don’t mind doing stuff with whatever resources we have lying around with no money whatsoever.” The DIY vibe and Internet-driven sensibility of their work is on full display in Deer Squad: The Movie.
Described as a “meme documentary,” the idea for Deer Squad began when they first read about Kelvin on The Fader and Complex and realizing that he lived only a mere miles away from them. He was so funny and charismatic that it seemed like a no-brainer to try and set something up. As Scott put it, “It seemed like a one of a kind story,” and one which had all the more potential given their proximity. A quick email exchange with Kelvin paved the way for what turned out to be a mere hours-long shoot on a Saturday morning.
Public Cinema Club describes their project as a “meme documentary.”
“We didn’t have too much of a plan,” Kenneth noted, “just a couple of interview questions about the deer, and we brought a couple of hoverboards, and just wanted to be silly with him. At first we wanted to document him making his videos but we weren’t really sure what it was going to be. We just wanted to make a short little video about this person.” And that’s precisely what you see in the finished film, which functions as a sort of brief and very funny intro to Kelvin and his deer squad.
With no set idea of what they wanted, the shoot was driven instead by Kelvin’s own personality. As it turns out, he didn’t need much prodding to give the Public Cinema Club guys enough footage to work with. Seeing him head out on a hoverboard on a mission to feed his deer healthier food than usual makes for surprisingly hilarious set-piece, especially when he tries to Snapchat the entire experience, almost falling in the process. “You know, with Kelvin,” said Pipus, “everything he does, he’s so funny. He just kills it every time. When you turn the camera on him he’s just so compelling.” That the young Dominican deer whisperer has managed to turn his Internet celebrity into a worthy charity cause (his “Everybody Eats” campaign) is proof that here is a meme worth taking seriously.
The young Dominican deer whisperer has turned his Internet celebrity into a worthy charity cause.
Editing the short film, which consisted of making it as punchy and short as possible, took only a handful of days. When they finished a cut of the video they were all happy with, and before pushing it on their own site, they decided to send it around and see if anyone was interested in posting it. Thankfully, they found a supportive partner in Super Deluxe, a production company that focuses on making “funny and smart videos from funny and smart weirdos who are probably a lot like you.” (You may have seen their delightfully bizarre takes on Steve Harvey’s existential crisis.) Super Deluxe immediately offered to license the video and launched it on their YouTube channel. The only condition was that the guys at Public Cinema Club wanted the opportunity to submit their video to film festivals—they already had South by Southwest in mind, thinking that it’d be a good fit for their off-kilter short doc.
Nevertheless, it was still a surprise when they got an email notifying them that Deer Squad: The Movie had been accepted to the Sundance Film Festival—none of them remembered having sent it their way. As they tell it, there was plenty of excited yelling going on when they found out they were headed to Park City. As it turns out Super Deluxe had submitted the film on their behalf. From the looks of it, the LA-based production company is set to have a strong presence at the fest with two other films (The Chances, a dramedy series about two deaf best friends and Bayard & Me, a short doc about gay Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin) also making this year’s Sundance program.
For the Public Cinema Club guys, the chance to head to Sundance is a comforting validation of the work they’re doing. Indeed, as Scott points out, “the fact that we got into Sundance and that people outside of our social group really liked it makes us feel that it’s a viable model for making films this way.” What has been a side hobby for the past couple of months may yet be a path towards making this a career.