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Dogs have already been given the designation of man’s best friend, and while that seems a little unfair to cat-lovers out there, it’s hard to argue with the idea that dogs are generally more loyal and loving than their feline counterparts. If you don’t believe that now, you might after you see Matthew Salleh‘s new documentary We Don’t Deserve Dogs.
The title cashes in on the popularity of the phrase that is constantly used on the internet whenever people’s dogs do wonderful, touching and lovely things for their humans, implying that dogs are too good to us. In reality, the film makes a strong case for why humans not only deserve dogs, but in many cases, desperately need their affection, loyalty and companionship to get through the hardships of life, recover from trauma, make a living, or just enjoy life to its full potential. It’s a compassionate chronicle of dogs from all around the world, but it’s also a portrait of their humans who have been through the wringer, and it will make you shed enough tears to fill your dog’s water bowl.
We Don’t Deserve Dogs opens by turning the camera on Chino, a stray dog living Chile. A woman who runs a pet boutique there took in Chino one night, giving him water and food, and he just started sticking around. But this is hardly Chino’s only home. Over at a nearby hospital, he’s called Rucio. Another woman who walks her dogs calls him Coloso, and he’s a favorite patron of a bodega where the locals love on him. This dog is a wanderer, living life as he pleases, stopping by his favorite hot spots, looking pensively at the world around him.
It’s this opening sequence that makes the rest of We Don’t Deserve Dogs that much more moving. Here, we have a dog that doesn’t have a true owner, and he’s not only survived by being a good dog, but by showing affection on his own terms to those who take the time to love him. The harrowing stories we’re about to hear from dog owners tug at your heartstrings just a little more when you see how these dogs have brought comfort to their lives when they needed it the most.
Throughout the film, director and cinematographer Matthew Salleh takes us to Chile, Uganda, Peru, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Finland, Romania, Vietnam, Nepal, and Scotland, each country featuring unique stories from all walks of life, and of course, their cute doggos. Some are painful to hear, others bring a bittersweett smile to your face, and a a couple are just plain delightful. There is one that might be somewhat triggering for dog lovers out there, but we’ll get to that later.
One woman from Uganda was kidnapped with her three brothers when they were kids and forced to become child soldiers. One-by-one, she watched her brothers die, one of them shot dead, another brutally killed in front of her and the other child soldiers, and another succumbed to illness. Saying it’s a heartbreaking life story is an understatement, and one can only imagine the post-traumatic stress she’s dealt with for years. But a therapy dog program in Uganda gave her and hundreds of other former child soldiers canine companions who make each day a little easier to handle. Another fellow child soldier says that if it wasn’t for his dog, he would have killed himself a long time ago.
Another woman sparked a connection with a stray mutt who was on the verge of death in a pile of trash in the streets of Pakistan. She rescued the dog, gave him food, water and a home, and felt a sort of kinship with him. This woman herself was an outcast in her culture, discriminated against for being a tomboy who wanted to play sports. It’s easy to see why these two took solace in each other. Even today, they still face persecution as dogs are viewed as impure and unholy animals by Muslims. But damned or not, they both live their best life with each other.
You’ll see how dogs, even the stray ones, are treated like royalty during a special celebration in Nepal called Kukur Tihar, or The Day of the Dog. On this day, they give all dogs floral necklaces, paint their heads with colorful dust markings, and give them plenty of food. They’re not the only pampered dogs either as elsewhere we see a full-on birthday party planned for a dog, complete with a piñata, gifts, and cake. It’s a little over-the-top, but these are people who view their dogs as family members.
Meanwhile, a more unsettling segment focuses on a husband and wife in Vietnam who cook dogs and sell their meat. There’s a perplexing differentiation between the dogs that are okay to cook and the dogs that people keep as pets. The segment might feel out of place in a documentary like this, but its purpose seems to be one of creating awareness of these kind of situations so that people might go out of their way to protect dogs as best they can. At the same time, it doesn’t portray this couple in a judgmental light, so the message isn’t entirely clear.
Even with that downer of a detour, the documentary is a clear love letter to dogs and the people that not only love them but need their love in return. The footage wanders with them at their eye-level, captures their playful, endearing personalities, lingers on their faces as they seem to ponder the world around them or pay close attention to what their owners are doing. They snooze away nearby as their humans recount the troubled lives they had and how a dog helped them cope, seemingly knowing that just their presence is calming them. They happily and briskly walk with their owners around cinematic landscapes in cities, hillsides, mountains, forests, drylands, and even pubs. These dogs are just magnificent, and that’s coming from someone who is much more of a cat person. They will bring both tears of incredible joy and unbelievable sadness to your eyes.
One interesting detail to note is that the documentary creates a sort of unity between us as people. Unless I’m mistaken, we never learn the names of the human subjects of this movie, but we do get several of the dog’s names. Furthermore, the locations are not specifically labeled as we move around the globe to hear these stories, leaving you to figure it out through languages and locations, though that’s only easy for a few of the stories. The result is a film that forces you to read the subtitles and just go along for the ride. You realize that you don’t need to know where these people live, and it doesn’t keep you from connecting with them.
We Don’t Deserve Dogs doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to documentaries about dogs. But it does offer a more unique perspective by hearing people’s stories from around the globe as opposed to just staying in a single location or even only in the United States. It’s as much a story about humanity as it is about the dogs that keep us grounded and sane. Because of that, it’s a real doggy treat.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10