Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Austin Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit austinfilmfestival.com and follow AFF on Twitter at @austinfilmfest.
I didn’t grow up around dogs. Early on, I found out that I had quite the allergy to both dogs and cats, so my household was not one with pets. Whenever I went over to a friend’s house, I would first have to check to see if any pets were there. If it was a dog or cat house, I would take my suite of allergy medications, throw two inhalers in my pocket, and then pay close attention to my own breathing while I was there. Anything longer than a few hours in a less than immaculately clean house was iffy, and sleepovers were an outright gamble. For me, dogs weren’t things I wanted to be around or play with, they were objects to be actively avoided.
Marty Jobin McFly, a 15-pound silky terrier, is my first dog and I have no doubt that he played a major role in the extent to which Of Dogs and Men tore me up.
That all changed a little over a year ago. My then girlfriend (now wife) desperately wanted to have a little furry one padding around the house. After conversations with our landlord, a multitude of trips to shelters, and desperate internet searches for affordable hypoallergenic breeds, we found him. Marty Jobin McFly, a 15-pound silky terrier, is my first dog and I have no doubt that he played a major role in the extent to which Of Dogs and Men tore me up.
Simplistically, Of Dogs and Men is another in a long line of issue documentaries. It finds a problem, shows it to the audience, and attempts to inspire you to do something. The laziest of this ilk simply believes that you care as much as the filmmaker does. The better ones throw out the idiocy of assumption and are constructed to make you care. Of Dogs and Men is one of the better ones.
Director Michael Ozias isn’t making this film for dog owners, he already has them on his side. Instead he takes the care and time to illustrate that this isn’t some one-off issue, wherein a handful of unlucky families lose a pet. The footage is graphic and doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the issue. The grainy videos of dogs being taken down by heavily armed police officers is the stuff of nightmares, where the viewer as onlooker sit there powerless, mouth agape. Most will find it hard to watch and some may argue that Ozias is being a bit manipulative in his insistence to show the atrocities in their entirety. However, to Ozias’ credit, to spare the viewer of facing the problem and incidents head on, would be a disservice to the cause. Without staring directly into the eye of the horror you cannot truly understand the gravity of it all.
What’s more interesting are the many personal accounts that populate the film. While the raw footage is something of a blunt tool, hearing it from the people it most directly affected is all the more delicate and nuanced. There are the typical tearful recollections that come to be expected in a film like this, but amongst these are also the steadier and balanced retellings, wherein time has lent a perceived numbness to what happened. The blank looks that accompany those that still appear to have trouble believing that their loved ones are gone are terrifyingly real. These aren’t hysterics and finger pointing that can be alienating in their grandiosity, they are troubling reminders that it can happen to anyone.
These aren’t hysterics and finger pointing that can be alienating in their grandiosity, they are troubling reminders that it can happen to anyone.
The major difficulty with a film like this is the ability for the filmmaker to present the full image because any issue is going to have more than just one side. These police officers could easily be painted as flat out villains, and unfortunately, Ozias often indulges in this easier of roads. The court interviews come off as cold, distant, and removed, and the pattern of lying and collusion makes them look like an ill-mannered fraternity rather than society’s protectors. When officers make themselves available and have an opinion that supports the film their voices are readily heard, but the dissenters remain largely silent. Admittedly, getting the participation of perceived “dog murderers” is certainly no easy task. However, even the footage that is chosen from what must’ve been hours of courtroom proceedings comes across as broad and a bit unfair. It may just be the hardest hurdle for an issue documentary to overcome and Of Dogs and Men never quite makes it over.
Luckily, Ozias finishes his film in grand fashion. Rather than letting the issue lie, leaving the audience to figure out just how to go about remedying it, he shows the progress that is being made. Like so many things in the world of today, change comes in the form of politics and office tedium. It may not be the most bombastically elegant of solutions, but its grounding lends the film further credibility. For so much of its runtime, Of Dogs and Men has made your stomach drop, your eyes water, your rage grow, but director Michael Ozias recognizes that that is just the beginning. While it has its missteps in the simplification of its detractors and just a horrible title that smacks of pretension, it is an extremely effective, level-headed, and future facing issue documentary. Of Dogs and Men may make you cry and it will certainly make you mad, but more importantly than anything else, it shows you how to make a change.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend a little extra time today with Marty.
Of Dogs and Men may make you cry and it will certainly make you mad, but more importantly than anything else, it shows you how to make a change.