I’ve always had a special affinity for dogs since I was in the third grade.
Being an only child, my dog was always my trusty little buddy. My current best friend is my amazing 15-year-old rat terrier, Jake.
I say all this in the way of full disclosure.
I’m a dog lover. I’ve been one my whole life. So I’m not impartial when it comes to movies about dogs.
I love to watch them with the exception of the times when I suspect that the canine star is going to die in the end.
I actually make a point of avoiding movies like that. Call me a soft-hearted wimp.
I know this isn’t what you want to hear from a veteran movie critic. But there you have it.
I was understandably cautious when I heard about the documentary film We Don’t Deserve Dogs.
There are a million reasons we don’t really deserve their affection, friendship and unconditional love.
I just wasn’t sure what direction the filmmakers were going to take or how heartbreaking the journey might be.
As it turned out, it followed its own path, one that was a rewarding experience.
It’s a fascinating film, the latest work from the documentary duo of Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker, Australian born filmmakers living in a small apartment in Brooklyn.
They are a two-person operation with Matt directing and shooting and Rose producing and recording audio.
They are a perfect match-- a lean and mean two-person production team, schlepping their gear in a couple of backpacks and immersing themselves in their subject, never crossing the line between observation and participation.
In this case, it was a journey of 13 months that covered 11 countries and 10 different languages.
It examines the relationship between human beings and canines in a wide variety of cultural and political contexts.
For some, dogs provide the only redemption and hope that can be found in a world of war and atrocities.
For others, they provide companionship that fellow humans are often incapable of offering.
Some of the dogs themselves have been rescued from mistreatment and abandonment, eventually recovering from physical and emotional scars enough to forgive and move on to forge new friendships.
We Don’t Deserve Dogs manages not to me sappy or trite.
Instead, it captures the magic that has bound people and dogs together over the millennia.
It is a deep emotional connection that is unique to these two species.
At the heart of the film are the interviews with dog owners. The approach is simple and straightforward.
The shots are essentially locked-down, portrait-style images of people telling the stories.
They are probing and revealing. Occasionally, they are painful.
One of the segments covers the treatment of dogs in Vietnam where they are largely regarded as a source of food. Granted, it’s a different culture with a different set of values.
While we’re spared the sight of the ugliness and unsettling details, the interviews provide the local, matter of fact perspective that westerners consider cruel and unimaginable. It's handled as well as it can be, telling the story without alienating the audience.
Thankfully, the rest of the film is largely a celebration of dogs and their remarkable nature.
Visually, the camera moves with them, follows them and stops to stare into their faces and deep into their eyes.
It captures their inner spirit of intelligence, companionship and love that dog owners know so well.
The movie’s locations span the globe. The 4K Cinemascope videography is stunning, making the most of simple, light-weight equipment by finding inventive ways of mobilizing the camera.
The location audio is authentic and crisp, the music track establishes the perfect ambience throughout the film.
It’s an engaging experience, start to finish.
My only minor criticism was the lack of identifiers on the screen indicating the change of locale (though the dialogue eventually lets you know where you are) and the occasional issues with subtitles being a little difficult to read when they appeared over bright portions of the frame.
It’s a problem that plagues all subtitled movies whether factual or fictional.
We Don’t Deserve Dogs takes you on a remarkable journey.
It avoids all the dog movie cliches that you might expect and manages instead to engagingly capture the magic and mystery of its subject matter. It's deeply resonating. And moving.
There is something truly remarkable about dogs and their connection with human beings.
It’s something strange and wonderful. It defies explanation.
I will never forget the day I met Jake in the pet store and the moment he started licking my face and wouldn’t stop.
As I’ve told friends, I’ll never be sure if I picked him or if he picked me.
It really doesn’t matter. All I do know is that it was meant to be. I never doubted that.
One last thing I loved about this movie after I saw it was the title.
The movie more than makes its point. We really don’t deserve dogs and all their never-ending devotion, loyalty, friendship and pure love.
They are a joy. And so is this film.
If We Don’t Deserve Dogs succeeds in doing anything, I hope that it makes us all open our hearts a little wider and try a little harder to be more deserving.
Photos courtesy Urtext Films.