Local filmmaker helps make local cat an award-winning star.

Share story

He is Henri the Existential Cat, certainly the most famous feline in Seattle, and now among the most famous in the country.

He lives a pampered life in a North End home, oblivious to his notoriety and a national award that was bestowed upon him last week.

Henri doesn’t care that the three YouTube videos in which he stars have been viewed 5.3 million times. In them, he tells — much in the style of a 1950s avant-garde film, in French with English subtitles — of his tortured cat soul.

Better to just take a nap.

On Thursday, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a video about Henri, “Henri 2: Paw de Deux,” by local filmmaker Will Braden, won the first Internet Cat Video Film Festival.

The event drew 10,136 entries, with more than 10,000 cat lovers showing up to watch as the videos were projected for free in a large open field outside the center.

It’s no secret that cat videos generate clicks on the Web, but even the Walker Art Center people were shocked at the response.

“When we thought of this idea six weeks ago, we thought that maybe 100 people would show up,” said spokeswoman Rachel Joyce. “Then we started getting a little attention, and we thought a couple of thousand people will be here. But we were absolutely overwhelmed.”

The contest included a number of categories — documentary and foreign, among others — but only one winner, chosen by public vote on the Web.

It was Braden and Henri who won the “People’s Choice” Golden Kitty award “by a landslide,” says Joyce. They even beat the world-famous Japanese cat, Maru, whose videos have been viewed 174 million times.

The award was for the second of the three videos by Braden starring Henri.

But it was his first video, “Henri,” that introduced the angst-ridden cat to the world: “I am a black cat … ,” the subtitles began. “I live a life of luxury … But I feel empty … .”

The award cost about $30 and is a piggy bank, shaped like a fat cat and sprayed in a gold color to make it look more like a real award.

Braden, 32, is a graduate of Garfield High School and Western Washington University who also studied at the Seattle Film Institute.

It was for a project at the film institute that Braden made the first video of Henri.

It was in 2006, and the students had been watching a number of black-and-white French movies from the 1940s and ’50s. Braden began thinking about how Americans viewed these films — “the French films were very pretentious and self-involved.”

He decided to do a parody. “And what could be more self-absorbed and pampered than a house cat?” he said.

Henri, who used to be just plain Henry, is a “tuxedo” cat, so named because of his black-and-white coloring. Now 8, he was adopted from the Seattle Animal Shelter.

He does not live with Braden, and, because of his fame, his actual ownership is a private matter.

It was to make him more French that Henry became “Henri” in the video.

Braden wrote the scripts, and his mother, who speaks fluent French, helped him with the pronunciations and proper usage.

The 2-½-minute video got good reaction from the instructors and fellow students, and eventually Braden decided to start a Facebook page for the cat, “Henri, le Chat Noir,” for “Henri, the Black Cat.”

At the end of 2011 he made the second video, which made Henri an online star. All those Facebook friends helped make Henri the People’s Choice winner in the recent contest.

Braden had been making a living doing videos at weddings and corporate events. Now, Braden has a website dedicated to Henri that sells everything from T-shirts to mugs, and generates $800 to $1,000 a week in sales.

Braden also says he has a book contract with Ten Speed Press, a subsidiary of Random House, for a book of Henri photos and musings.

On his Facebook page, which has nearly 40,000 followers, Braden also posts regular Henri existential quotes:

“Am I supposed to be excited that the world has made one more rotation? We are hurtling through space, yet going nowhere.”

“Once, after an abundance of catnip, I hallucinated that I was ascending to the heavens and touching the whiskers of God. I woke up on top of the refrigerator.”

To get into an existential mood, Braden says he buys used books and goes online to get e-books by existential authors, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus.

“It’s a little disheartening that you can get a book on existentialism for 99 cents, and Kim Kardashian’s memoirs sell for like $17,” he says.

Braden says that one reason he chose Henri to star in the videos — besides the fact that his black-and-white fur would show up better — is that the cat is so easygoing.

Henri lives with three other cats, including a white one that has made appearances in the videos, with Henri referring to him as “the white imbecile.”

If Braden wants a shot of Henri looking out the window for some moody pondering, “I just put him there.”

And if he needs to have the cat at a certain angle by the cat dish, “I just slide him one way or the other. As long as I give him treats, he’s happy.”

Finally, courtesy of Braden, this from Henri, on winning the contest:

“That I have received this golden, smiling idol for a film documenting my metaphysical torment speaks volumes about the spiritual void of humanity. Shiny and meaningless, life marches on.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com