In a year so miserable that even “The Great British Baking Show” seems to only add to our malaise, there’s only one solution: dogs – and lots of them. Thankfully, that’s exactly what the new kind-hearted dog-umentary “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” offers: pups from across the planet, each with their own story of human connection – sweet and bittersweet – to tell. (Or bark.)
Using a similarly globe-trekking approach to his feature-length foodie flick “Barbecue,” director Matthew Salleh ventures across the continents – eleven countries in total – finding different stories of dogs and their uniquely unassuming bond with the locals.
One furry lump named Chino serves almost as a Chilean city’s soul, wandering the streets on a constant search for company, calling one place home before moving to his next destination. Another segment follows a dog walker and his varied experiences with his tail-wagging wards in the famously cat-crazed city of Istanbul – the subject of its own naturalistic doc, “Kedi.” One vignette focuses on some shepherding dogs as they serve as a couple’s only friends as they live alone off the land in the wild, reflecting on their lonely and disconnected lifestyle; another hangs out in a bustling small-town Scottish pub with as many four-legged patrons as two-legged. A Pakistani woman tells her story of rescuing a wounded dog and taking it in, despite housing a dog while being against her faith, while another man tells his regret-filled tale of abandoning his pet, only to see it years later living a new and healthy life elsewhere. Another spin around the globe finds a city that hosts a dog festival, festooning canines around town with crowns and garlands of flowers like the kings they are.
Each story is tenderly told and lovingly captured – Salleh pulls double duty as cinematographer – the natural vistas and dog’s eye views wandering through cities daring to be almost as eye-catching as their fuzzy stars. And as you’d hope, “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” is very cute – and may even teach you a new adorable word: “cuddlesome.”
The film, however, goes beyond simply preciousness porn. In fact, the most memorable and affecting segment of the bunch is also the most heart-wrenching, as former Ugandan child soldiers open up about the atrocities they both suffered and committed in the past, their dogs in the present providing therapy from their PTSD with a pair of kind, loving and forgiving eyes – something hard to find amongst their more judgmental human communities. It’s the movie’s most powerful chapter to man’s best friend, a tear-summoning tribute to these creatures’ capacity for love for all – but even a whimsical visit with a woman who throws extravagant birthday parties for her tiny pup, dressing her in delicate gowns, takes time to reflect on dogs’ comparatively fleeting lifespans, making her seemingly silly birthday celebrations all the more precious and important.
Together, these stories told between owner and dog meld into a tribute that goes more than merely fur-deep, creating a thoughtful meditation on the connections people form with their four-legged flatmates and the meaning people find in them. These precious faces become living Rorschach tests, with some subjects’ reflecting on the pup’s lives, others reflecting on their own and the audience finding their own revelations by the end – beyond “I need to hug my dog, now.”
As with most compilations, some vignettes are stronger than others. The Scottish pub trip ends the doc on a fairly slight note, while you’d be excused for wondering if there even were dogs in the chapter on the couple living off the grid, as any canines truly feel like a sidenote to their story. Its lesser chapters aren’t helped either by Blake Ewing’s score – not so much the music itself but how it’s used, insistently playing throughout the entire doc and threatening to make the film’s scattered stories feel monotonous or repetitive.
That’s certainly not a problem for the film’s Vietnam segment, though, making a double-take-inducing visit to a small family shop that cooks and eats dog meat. It’s a thoughtfully done piece, taking a non-ogling look at a cultural tradition and a family coping with changing tides – but it’s such a drastic and visceral topic, though, that I wanted either a deeper, fuller dive into the tradition and its meaning, culturally and personally to this family, or nothing at all. As it stands, the section provides a noteworthy perspective but isn’t entirely worth the whiplash – especially for squeamish viewers and certainly their dogs if they're watching along.
These are small mistakes, though, that don't require rubbing the film’s nose in them – especially when the rest of "We Don't Deserve Dogs" can be so moving and hug-inspiringly sweet, a good documentary worthy of these very good boys.
"We Don't Deserve Dogs": *** out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.