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Dog's Life: Humane
A Dog’s Purpose
Training of dogs for movie under scrutiny

The movie “A Dog’s Purpose” is suffering what can only be called a PR disaster after footage has surfaced showing unacceptable treatment of one of the dogs during filming. In response to the treatment of the dog, many people have vowed to boycott the film, which will be released next week.

In the clip that is causing the controversy, a German Shepherd is being forced into turbulent water to film a scene in which the dog rescues a child from drowning. The dog is being physically pushed into the water despite clearly resisting, and even climbing back out using the side of the pool and the trainer as footholds. The dog looks panicked, and is making obvious efforts to avoid being tossed in the water, even clawing at the edge. You can hear someone say, “Don’t worry, it’s warm water at least,” and “He ain’t gonna calm down till he goes in the water” and “You just gotta throw him in,” all of which show complete disregard to the well-being of the dog, who is truly terrified. At one point, you hear someone say, “I think he wants to go in,” which is clearly wishful thinking. The next thing you hear is the more truthful, “He wants to get away! Just throw him in,” which is exactly what happens, to the chagrin of most viewers. Once he is in, he goes under, and it turns frantic on set. You can hear someone yelling, “Cut it, cut it!” and people are running towards the submerged dog.

The one bright spot in this clip is the boy in the water, who about halfway through is calling out cheerily, “Here boy, here boy” at which point the dog looks calmer and more relaxed than at any other point in the 60 seconds of footage. Additionally, it is this child who rushed first and fastest to the dog when he is submerged. I don’t see evidence that the filmmakers are concerned enough about the safety and feelings of the dog, but the child actor is, and I give him credit for that.

The American Humane Association (AHA) is responsible for the No Animals Were Harmed program, which is supposed to insure the well-being of animal actors on set. However, they have a history of ignoring poor treatment of animals during moviemaking. In response to this recent controversy, the AHA has suspended the safety representative who was on set that day and say they will investigate the incident.

The behavior of entering turbulent water in the chaotic situation associated with making a film needed to be approached step-by-step so that the dog was trained to do this ahead of filming. It would take a lot of work and a considerable amount of time to help almost any dog feel comfortable in this situation, and based on this clip, that investment was not made, and it is the dog who suffered. Another option if a dog is unable to handle the scene without distress would be to use a stunt double—a dog who is more comfortable with water.

What’s your take on the treatment of the dog during the filming of this scene?

Culture: Reviews
A Stray: Film Review
A new film looks at a young man and a dog both in need of a place to call home.

In A Stray, Adan, a young, homeless Somali immigrant played by Barkhad Abdiarhman (Captain Phillips) is paired with a homeless dog. This compelling film, written and directed by Musa Syeed, is only his second narrative feature. Syeed, clearly influenced by the neo-realism of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, chose to center his story in a community of Muslim Somalians living in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

In this society, Adan is on his own, unfocused and confused. Similar to many refugees, he tries to assimilate, although he’s not sure what that really means, as well as to stay in touch with his own culture and religion. Then, while on a job delivering food, he hits a stray dog, played with charming realism by Ayla, a Terrier mix.

The dog is uninjured, but then Adan, with no resources of his own, is burdened not only by a creature who needs to be cared for but also, one his religion considers unclean. Adan feels helpless in this situation, ill-equipped to know what’s best for himself or for the dog. Slowly, we see Adan growing into a kinder, more focused person, a change inspired, perhaps, by the incipient bond he forges with the dog and his efforts to do the right thing by her.

This film provides the viewer with insight into a social milieu with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar, that of refugees and their struggle to survive in American communities. Also, in a revelatory scene, into the Native American community; each group finds it difficult to understand the other’s “outsider” status. The film’s ending is influenced by a lesson an imam shares with Adan: A man was wandering in the desert and finally found water, but near the well, there was a thirsty dog. The man filled his shoe to give water to the dog before drinking some himself, and God granted the man heaven.

We spoke with the film’s writer/ director, Musa Syeed, and Ayla’s handler/ owner, Karen Radford, to find out more about what informs their work.

Bark: What inspired this film?

Musa Syeed: My wife found a stray dog shortly after we got married. We are both Muslim, and we were raised to believe that dogs are dirty—you can’t touch them and that kind of thing. Over the weeks we had the dog, I unexpectedly developed a relationship with her. She was a black Lab/ German Shepherd mix, and was such a happy puppy after my wife nursed her back to health. But we were moving to another state, so we decided to take her to the shelter. I had a connection with her, even though I had to give her up. I had this regret, and I started to look at this attitude toward dogs. It isn’t just a religious thing; there are lots of layers to it, and I wanted to make a film about that.

Bark: How did you come to incorporate the dog into the film, and as such an important character?

Musa: I wanted to write a story about a Muslim kid and a dog, like those typical classic American stories. We all grew up reading White Fang and those kinds of books, and I wanted to tell that story from a new perspective, reflecting the new America, in a way. I had that idea in the back of my mind. I also wanted to tell a story about the Minneapolis Somali community and the thematic connection between this community of refugees that’s trying to make a home for itself and a dog who also needs a home. For me, the interesting thing is how unlikely pairings such as these happen and how they find a way to connect, and to love each other in a way, despite the barriers between them. In this case, the question was, how can you love something you can’t touch? That was something I thought was an interesting challenge to show, and it is something that reflects this moment in America. There is a lot of division, and how we bridge it is what’s important to me.

Bark: How did you connect with Karen and her dog Ayla?

Musa: A local [Minneapolis] animal trainer, Debi Pool of Animal Talent Pool, has a catalog of 60 or 70 dogs, and she showed us pictures and some videos. I thought that when we did close-ups, people needed to see the dog’s eyes for that personal connection. Ayla has nice eyes, and her look was really great, her scruffy look; plus, she was the right size to fit into the bag!

Bark: Tell us more about Ayla.

Karen Radford: We adopted Ayla through Secondhand Hounds [Eden Prairie] about five years ago. She was found wandering in a ditch. We don’t know her exact mix, but we speculate Jack Russell and West Highland Terrier. True to her Terrier type, she’s excellent at hunting up vermin, and she still loves wandering in ditches. One of my hobbies is to train dogs for sports like agility and flyball. So although this is Ayla’s acting debut, she was very amenable to training.

Bark: Musa, could you tell us about directors or movies that have influenced your filmmaking?

Musa: There are neo-realism films that focus on a dog, especially Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., about an older man and a dog, although in that story, he wanted to get rid of the dog so he could commit suicide. And then there was a 2008 American film, Wendy & Lucy, about a woman who has to give up a dog in order to save herself.

I was inspired by those films, but I think that oftentimes, it’s easy to be sentimental with dogs and to use them to manipulate audiences, to tug at their hearts. I deliberately didn’t push that too hard. In some films, the dog dies or goes through some brutality, and I also didn’t want this film to be about that. I know people will see that this film is about a refugee and a dog and think that something really devastating will happen, but it doesn’t go there. I wanted to tell a story that was more lighthearted and healing for the people watching it.

Bark: Even though we know little of the main characters’ backstories, they feel multidimensional. Was much of the filming off script, or improvised?

Musa: There was some of that. When I wrote the screenplay, there were certain things I thought were simple, things a dog would just do, like barking; I didn’t realize that it’s a skill that has to be trained. So a lot was understanding what we had to prepare Ayla for and, importantly, what she was up for doing. There was a scene where she was supposed to jump and run around and she didn’t feel like it at that moment, so we had to find a way to work around her. She can’t take direction from me. It was more about respecting where she was, and trying to shape scenes to where she wanted to be.

Bark: Karen, how did you go about training Ayla for more scripted scenes —for example, when she needed to jump into the bag?

Karen: We didn’t have much time between when we were selected and when we shot the film, so we worked on the basics. For the bag-jumping, she had breakfast in her bag every morning. I have another dog, and they would have a competition to see who got to be in the bag. We made that bag really rewarding. We practiced throwing a shirt over her, having different people pick her up, having her ride with someone in a wheelchair. The challenge was that we didn’t know what would happen from day to day, or where the scenes would be filmed, so we didn’t have a chance to visit beforehand. As Musa said, we just had to work with the challenge that dogs don’t generalize. Even if I had her do a behavior at home, that didn’t mean she would do it the same way in an apartment or in a park.

Bark: There’s a scene where Adan bathes Ayla in a bucket. Did you have to train specifically for that?

Karen: One of the challenges of that scene was that she wasn’t allowed to shake [the water coming off her is considered “unclean”]. I can’t take credit for actually teaching Ayla not to shake when wet. However, I taught her a rock solid “watch me,” which we used when she had to stand unattended in the bucket, and I taught Barkhad how to handle her when he was bathing her so she wouldn’t shake all over him. After the scene was done and Barkhad was out of range, Ayla was allowed to shake to her heart’s content.

Musa: Karen brought that bucket to the set. I have to commend her for being more than just the owner/ trainer. She helped with props and other things. It made the movie better —having someone on-set like that to collaborate was really great.

Bark: Tell us about the cultural divide over the concept of pet-keeping.

Musa: There are differences in opinion within Islamic law about the impurity of the dog, and that can often be exaggerated. It comes less from the religion itself than from cultural practices and not being exposed to dogs. Also, when immigrant families have to feed themselves, pet-keeping seems like a luxury. Besides religion, there’s a racial/cultural component. And then at the end, people have to realize that keeping the dog is harder for him than it is for other people, not just because of religion but also because of social and economic factors. So I hope that people see that there are layers to that choice, and appreciate it.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Not So Secret Life of Pets
Real dogs just as funny as movie versions

I was quick to roll my eyes and grumble that the makers of the film “The Secret Life of Pets” went for cheap laughs over more believable depictions of our pets. I had to eat my words, though, when I saw this ad showing dogs acting just like their movie counterparts. Some crazy things that I’ve never see in the real world include a dog turning on the music and then rocking out to it, and a Dachshund taking advantage of electric beaters to get a back massage.

 

In what way does your dog act like the dogs in the clip?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
“The Present”
This animated short features a dog

The animated short film “The Present” by Jacob Frey tells the story of a boy who doesn’t want to play outside. He stays inside by himself and plays video games, but he is hardly content. That looks to improve when his mom brings him a dog as a present. The dog has to be persistent to engage with the boy, but eventually the dog’s enthusiasm wins out and the two do head outside to play.

The animated short is based on Fabio Coala’s comic, which contains such lines as, “Wait, what kind of a puppy doesn’t have a leg?!” “You can’t play. You’re only there for people to feel sorry for you. Don’t pretend you’re happy.” and “ You don’t care about your leg. You’re happy anyway.” The film has experienced a remarkable amount of success for a thesis project, winning over 50 awards.

We all have traits that we share with certain dogs, and sometimes that makes us perfect for each other. In this story, it’s not so much that the boy and the dog are each missing part of a leg that bonds them together. It’s more that they both have the desire to be social, to play and to be happy.

Culture: DogPatch
Heart of a Dog: Laurie Anderson is a visionary

Laurie Anderson is a visionary artist and a pioneer in electronic music as well as a marvelous storyteller. She employs her voice, with its songlike phrasing (as in her 1981 hit single “O Superman”), along with instruments—some of which she invented—video and other acoustic props to weave her tales.

In her new film, Heart of a Dog, her beloved Rat Terrier, Lolabelle, takes center stage in an imaginative, lyrical, confessional narrative. As Anderson describes it, “It’s a series of short stories about telling stories.” Quoting David Foster Wallace, she adds, “Every love story is a ghost story.”

Over the course of this absorbing 75-minute film, she considers the deaths of her mother; her dear Lolabelle, whom she “co-parented” with husband Lou Reed; her friend Gordon Matta-Clark; and finally, Reed himself in 2013. Times critic A.O. Scott praised it as a “philosophically astute, emotionally charged meditation on death, love, art and dogs.” It’s also about learning to “how to feel sad without actually being sad,” as her Buddhist teacher instructed.

While the film offers a visual representation, it’s really Anderson’s Zen-calm narrative that conveys its message. Both film and score open with her recounting a dream in which she gives birth to Lolabelle. She then uses the dog as a springboard, digressing to a variety of other topics but always circling back to the dog. One of our favorite segments, “Piano Lessons,” is about how Anderson and Reed set up keyboards on the floor for their old dog (who was going blind), and used a clicker to train her to make music. As Anderson wryly observes, the dog’s playing “was … pretty good.”

The movie, which has a limited run, will be aired on HBO in 2016. Luckily for dog lovers and Anderson fans, Nonesuch just released its critically acclaimed soundtrack. 

Culture: DogPatch
The Peanuts Movie
A new Peanuts movie reunites Snoopy and Charlie Brown in 3D

Being great fans of Charles Schultz’s work we were excited to learn that they made a full-length, 3D movie about Charlie Brown and all his pals, including, of course, Snoopy. As the trailer notes this is a movie about “an underdog and his dog.” We talked with Steve Martino, the movie’s director about this exciting project.

Who’s the brainchild behind The Peanuts movie?

Craig Schultz, the son of Charles Schultz, and his son, Brian, plus Brian’s writing partner, Cornelius Uliano. All three of them are the writers and producers on the film. I think was Craig's desire to keep his father's legacy alive. I think between Craig and Brian they began to craft an idea that they felt would be worthy of a feature film and not a short or a television special. We find today that, kids don't read the comic strips in a newspaper as I did when I was growing up. They meet these characters that they connect with through feature films often. 

This new movie is 3D, how was that transition made from a flat medium?

I thought that with the tools that we have in computer animation that it could enhance the emotion of the story. I also thought there was a wonderful opportunity to bring a character like Snoopy alive with all of his fun, crazy animation action, we could also create a rendering for him that had softness in his fur, it just brings a different emotional connection. 

What became critically important is that the characters always looked and felt and moved ...as I had always remembered them. So, we were very particular about the way we posed the characters, the way we move them, so that it always feel like Peanuts should feel.

With regard of the everyman quality of Charlie Brown, I think the same can be said of the dog, Snoopy. Everyone sees their dog in Snoopy.

It's so true. I think Charles Schultz always said that Charlie Brown may have been a little bit more who he was and Snoopy was who he always wanted to be. Snoopy’s a big character, he plays big. He's funny. What I love in our film though, is that we really spotlight and showcase that, a boy and his dog, in that kind of relationship.

The Peanuts Movie, opening November 6, 2015, it will be released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Culture: Reviews
Film Review: White God
An illuminating exploration of humanity through animals.

If your live in North America, it’s possible you’ve noticed a rising tide recently of news coverage and public dialog related to ethnic discrimination and racially motivated violence. The high visibility of #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe and other solidarity-based social media phenomena in recent months is just one manifestation of an uncomfortable, mounting social awareness among sheltered denizens of the U.S. and its surrounding territories that systematic oppression, abuse of power, and covert white supremacy are still alive and well. In Eastern Europe, many of these issues have become depressingly old-hat— particularly in Hungary, where nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation have recently given way to a resurgence of white nationalist cries for enforced ethnic purity.

Enter White God, a new film by acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, which opened in the U.S. in March. The movie tells the story of a group of rowdy canines confined to an overcrowded public shelter in Budapest who break free of their chains and storm the streets of the city, waging bloody retaliation against their human oppressors. White God draws upon Eastern Europe’s painfully recent history of government tyranny and exploitation under Communism, as well as its subsequent slide into radical ultra-con- servatism, to construct a fast-paced, emotionally devastating parable about the fearsome power of a dehumanized underclass.

The film’s perspective shifts between that of the four-legged rebel leader, Hagen, and his adolescent human sympathizer, Lili. While Hagen endures starvation, abuse and confinement, Lili roams the streets searching for her lost pet, whose agonies are the result of a cruel, impulsive abandonment by Lilli’s embittered father. The real culprit, though, is a “mutt tax” levied against all non-purebreds, which is so ridiculously high that Lili’s father refuses to pay it.

“During the last eight years, Hungary has become more and more extreme,” Mundruczó laments. Indeed, the country’s third most popular political party, according to recent polls, is Jobbik, a rhetorically aggressive Hungarian nationalist group, which lists the permanent expulsion of Jews and Romanis from Eastern Europe among its highest priorities. “In my eyes, the economic crisis [has led to] a huge moral crisis,” Mundruczó says. “The society has become motivated by lots of fear, and those fears are not really very helpful for minorities, and refugees, and those elements. So racism and chauvinism are very much on the rise as we are facing those questions and problems.”

Proton Cinema

White God’s title is a nod to American director Sam Fuller’s similarly themed 1982 film White Dog—which Mundruczó saw after his own movie had already been completed, but whose philosophical underpinnings he enthusiastically embraced. Mundruczó’s greatest inspiration, though, comes from South African author J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, in which a shamed college professor retreats to the countryside and takes on a position at a small veterinary clinic, which he discovers exists primarily to euthanize unwanted street dogs. Like White God, Coetzee’s novel traces the subterranean networks that link the mass extermination of neglected South African strays, and the looming specters of ethnic cleansing and mounting political extremism that have plagued the region.

The film also draws parallels between social attitudes condoning the routine abuse and extermination of domesticated animals, and the embedded institutional prejudices which allow racism and other forms of structural inequality to persist. “That first time in the dog park,” Mundruczó recalls, “I said, ‘Such a shame!’ I just looked around, and I watched the dogs’ eyes behind the fences, and I said, ‘I really would like to talk about that … I don’t want to live in a world where dogs have no rights.’ So of course this is about human rights and animal rights.”

The “mutt tax” and subsequent confinement, starvation, abuse and ultimately, extermination of mixed-breed animals in White God, in one sense, is an obvious metaphor—socially marginalized people are often crassly compared to animals to justify their mistreatment, and the concept of ethnic “purity” is the bread and butter of any toxic nationalist movement.

More to the point, though, it was very nearly a reality in Hungary. Though it was ultimately struck down, a proposed law in Budapest, very similar to the one in the film, would have effectively consigned almost all of the city’s mixedbreed dogs to kill shelters. What White God leaves out is that a similar tax, though slightly less prohibitive, would have been applied to “foreign” purebreds as well. Basically, the only dogs not subject to taxation would have been purebred dogs of a breed historically traceable to Hungary, a bizarre and chilling stipulation considering Hungary’s recent groundswell of politi cized racial antipathy.

Naturally, the genocidal extermination of “impure” housepets, and actual, human genocide can’t be compared in terms of moral equivalency. What’s disturbing in this scenario is the deeper pathos it suggests—the extreme devaluation of individual lives for the sake of an abstract ideal. It’s hard to imagine a more poignant symbol of the human wreckage caused by the quest for ethnic purity than the execution of thousands of beloved pet dogs as an enforced gesture of national solidarity. There is a singularly grotesque vulgarity in extending such notions of national purity to creatures who aren’t even cap- able of having political consciousness.

Mundruczó sees these parallels in terms of treachery and moral failure. “Dogs are universal,” He says, “Dogs are ‘human.’ Dogs are part of the human family. That’s the way it was for thousands and thousands of years, and then we betrayed them. And then they have, of course, anger. So they symbolize that anger for any minority who is kicked out of our family.”

It’s hard to come away from such a film without fully considering the relationship between human and animal cruelty, even outside the context of blatantly sinister totalitarianism. Even in more progressive parts of the world, most people think nothing of euthanizing domesticated animals for the sake of population control, public health, etc., and an eerily similar rationale tends to pervade public dialog regarding violence against human citizens. “Protecting the public welfare” can become a justification for just about any form of large-scale civil abuse, so long as a public majority is scared or hostile enough to allow it.

Mundruczó’s goal is to strip away the particularities of these threads of suffering and unify them into a single narrative that anyone can immediately identify with. “[Dogs] love humans more than humans themselves,” he observes, “and of course in this way, you can follow a story much more easily.”

This article was originally published on Guff.com © 2015 by Devon Ashby, reprinted with permission.