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‘We Don’t Deserve Dogs’

April 1, 2020

Despite humanity’s often bad behavior toward people and animals alike, we still receive unconditional love and support from our darling, wet-nosed companions. In documentarian duo Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker’s “We Don’t Deserve Dogs,” the filmmakers’ dogged determination to showcase man’s best friend as mankind’s savior pays off as an essential experience. On all levels, it conjures the warm and fuzzies while demonstrating the boundary-busting natures of these warm, fuzzy puppy protagonists.

The story unfurls through a serious of indelible vignettes, ranging from two to fifteen minutes, connecting a series of questions and answers: What does dog ownership look like for those in war-ravaged villages? How does a dog walker support himself in a feline-centric city like Istanbul? Are there caste levels for canines in Vietnam, and how arbitrary are they? Can pups be rehabbed from trauma in the same way they’ve helped heal humans? The film elegantly bookends with that last one, connecting the story of emotionally-scarred child soldiers assimilating back into society with the help of their dogs to the story of a once-neglected, stressed out Bull Terrier finding sanctuary in Scotland with the help of kind humans. It’s incredibly powerful how these gentle souls can transform the lives around them, easing anxiety, trauma, pain and grief.

The poignant connective tissue between the tales doesn’t end there. A truffle hunter who cherishes his slow-skilled Springer Spaniel has much in common with the gentleman who abandoned his Chihuahua near a farm only to discover it’s become a shepherd. Both dogs were encouraged (albeit in different ways) to find their purpose. A Pakistani self-confessed “tomboy” who rebels against her religion’s views on dogs by keeping a stray is spiritually related to the Vietnamese man who protests against others calling his cute French Bulldog “ugly and stinky.” Two women dress their fancy fur babies in finery, not just on special occasions like dog birthday parties, but also every day as emotional support dogs. And a certified St. Bernard in Finland projects calm and strength while providing snuggles and spreading cheer to the elderly.

Salleh and Tucker don’t delineate – at least with chyrons – between the people, pups, places and problems featured in each of the sequences. It would be inauthentic if they had done so, as the capacities of these canines are boundless. Instead, the cross-cultural stories are linked through subtle exploration of values, ethics and morals. This technique is integral for their stirring sentiments to be felt by the viewer, even if it’s done rather subliminally. It allows the filmmakers’ humanistic, unobtrusive approach to their subjects (both two-legged and four-legged) to develop and flourish.

Though there are plenty of happy tears to shed over the reverence given to the majority of barking buddies featured, there are also some sorrow-filled ones. Salleh and Tucker don’t shy away from taking a brief, non-exploitative look at the dog meat trade through the eyes of one hardworking meat monger family in Vietnam. This highly-effective segment, though dealing with a gruesome practice, is tastefully shot and assembled (we thankfully don’t see the death in focus and close-up). Before it transitions to a more uplifting piece about the Nepalese worship of dogs, this activism-stoking scene ends on one of the butchers stating how to curb his horrific trade: “If no one eats it, there’s no demand.”

Aesthetics also play a key role, emphasizing the tranquility of nature in the breeds and their environments. Stylistic choices impact the narrative’s leanings, but don’t drive them. Whether it be a grand pastoral gaze applied to shots of dogs herding sheep through a lush landscape in Romania, or the intimate ways in which the filmmakers capture the small stepping stones towards an everlasting bond between a reticent Scottish owner and his rescue, Salleh and Tucker’s vision remains authentic and naturalistic.

Similar to Netflix’s docuseries “Dogs” and other dog-centered documentaries like “Buddy” or “The Dog Doc,” the undercurrent of “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” is alive with the message that dogs are an essential lifeline for humankind, providing joy and a reminder of life beyond oneself. We may not deserve the amount of love, support and respect dogs give us, but we certainly deserve this loving portrait of them in all their glory.

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