"We Love Our Dogs" (Diva Dog report back)
What: Diva Dog and Off the Chain
Where: that funky little theater near PSU
When: Awww, you missed it. Last night.
I went to see Diva Dog and Off the Chain last night. It was a free show, presented by the rescue organization Positively Pitbull. Actually, I intended to just see Diva Dog, and was assured by one of the presenters of this event that it would play
first. I had been warned that Off the Chain was brutally graphic, and I did not want to subject myself to the images I knew it would contain. So I kind of resent the fact that, despite assurances to the contrary, they showed Off the Chain first, and I was forced to sit through it. ("Everyone should see this," I was told by a presenter. However, given the setting -- a room full of people who love dogs and animal rights activists who are already in the struggle against dog fighting -- I am not sure that it was necessary to subject us all to that. It was roughly akin to going to a gathering of radical vegans, and forcing them to sit through slaughter house videos... I mean, we know that already, that's why we're here.)
I had no idea that there were so many good people who care about these dogs. The theater was full! I spoke with several of the volunteers, who provided a wealth of information about the dogs, the shelter, and about what people can do to help. (More on that below.)
As I said, I sat through Off the Chain, mostly against my will. Alas, it was grisly, brutal, and very difficult to watch. Grudgingly, though, I had to admit that the volunteers were right. It was worth watching. I thought I knew enough about dog fighting already, and yes, I was already very much against this awful, bloody plague. But, as one volunteer said, "I hope it does make you angry. Because out of that anger comes activism." Sure enough, I left knowing that I will need to do more than I have to put an end to dog fighting, something that has been steadily creeping through the back streets of this community.
The film depicted the horrific "sport" of dog fighting from within. There were interviews with shadowy, unsavory men with hidden identities, footage of the preparations for the fights, and awful, awful footage from within the pits themselves, where dogs were forced to fight to the death or be killed by brutal thugs (who assured us, during the interviews, that people just don't understand how much they "love these dogs"). I could hear people openly sobbing in the seats all around me, throughout this video. I confess, I had my eyes closed through most of it.
We followed the progress of a beautiful little pit bull puppy, "little black dog," from her abused puppy-hood, through the brutal and objectifying "training" phase of her life, and into the ring. Some highlights: The man who "loves his dogs" drugged her until she stumbled and sank into a half-conscious stupor. Then he pried open her mouth and, with a filthy power tool, drilled and ground her teeth. He did it, he said, to make them "razor sharp." He injected her with steroids. He baited her against other dogs, and brutalized her until she was "ready." Then, he threw her into a pit with another dog, and burly humans terrorized the dogs until there was nothing left but a bloody mass. Little Black Dog "won." She was torn and half dead, and the human assured us, "She's a champion now. I'll do what I can to save her."
With no veterinary training, and apparently no natural aptitude for the delicacies involved, he went about injecting her with antibiotics, jabbing IVs into her, and crudely sewing up her wounds. Miraculously, she survived. For awhile. He told us that she would be worth $25,000 now. As a "champion." In between assurances about how much he "loves his dogs," he informed us that, had she stopped fighting or lost, he would have killed her himself. It's not cruel, he clarified, it's just how it is. Dogs that could not be champions are, to use his word, "a burden." And so are routinely killed, often in unimaginably cruel ways (which the film brutally depicted), by the men who "love" them.
In the end, Little Black Dog was executed by the police, who had raided the fighting ring, and "rescued" the dogs. All of the dogs were "euthanized."
This brings up one of the main gripes I had about this film. That is, it appeared to be portraying the police as the "good guys" throughout the film. It was the police who would "save" the dogs, we were led to believe. Fresh-faced officers gave touching interviews about how bad the dog fighters are, how hard it is to bring any sanctions to them, how brutal conditions are for the dogs. But in the end, there were no rescues for these dogs. No saviors. No knights in shining armor. Everyone wanted pit bull blood.
When the police raided the fighters, we watched them uncover all the illicit drugs used on the dogs, discover all the training apparatuses, drag out a blood-soaked rug from inside the pit, and "rescue" the dogs. They walked among the vast yard full of dogs on chains, petting them and photographing them. (It was very touching to watch the dogs yearning for, and responding to, the comforting touch of the police officers. One dog was so thirsty it voraciously lapped water out of a bucket as it was led past it. All the dogs were friendly and sweet to the officers who were there to "save" them.
And then we learned that these dogs would never be saved. They were all "euthanized." They could not be rescued, we were told, because it would not be safe to return them to society after they had been used to fight other dogs. They could not be rehabilitated. And the men who made petty fortunes setting the dogs upon each other? They got less than a slap on the wrist. The worst of them received a 6 month sentence of unsupervised probation. No jail time, no sanction at all.
So everyone in this film was a victimizer. And everyone did it out of "love" for the dogs. The film did not comment enough, I thought, on the cruelty of the system, in which dog fighters receive a slap on the wrist for unspeakable horrors, but also the police "save" the dogs only to kill them. This is what became of "little black dog." She was killed by the state, 4 days after her "rescue."
So that was Off the Chain. Diva Dog, on the other hand, should have been an uplifting change of pace. And pretty much, it was. It started out to be a beautiful story about a dog who had been rescued by the filmmaker. Prior to his interventions, the dog had been kept in a closet and routinely beaten. He and a friend had liberated her and took her on the lamb across the country. The dog flourished. But five years after their meeting, the dog was hit by a car and paralyzed. Undaunted, the filmmaker nursed her back to health and bought her a dog wheelchair, and she became a goodwill ambassador -- both for the maligned pit bull breed, and for dogs with disabilities.
So yes, it was a lovely story. However, in my opinion, it got pretty weird here and there. There were the inexplicable and seemingly drug-induced celebrity cameos, for one thing. But...all right, I'm just going to say it. What was up with the dog cremation scenes? Weird. Just, really weird. The Diva Dog lived a good, long life, and finally died in 2005, four years after being paralyzed, and nine years after being rescued. A very uplifting and beautiful story. I think a somber note at the end, reservedly informing the audience of her passing would have been enough. Instead, the filmmaker inexplicably turned the story from a story about a life worth remembering, to a story about a dead dog. A long, ponderous sequence involving seemingly disrespectful and intrusive images of her dead body lying in state, and then, (cough), footage of her being loaded into the oven for cremation... I mean... weird. Even the filmmaker picking out an urn for her. It was really...well, gratuitously unnecessary. And...weird.
All right, and here I have to confess something. I um... I got the giggles. I mean I know, it was completely inappropriate. It just came off as so inexplicably odd to be throwing all this in there, completely derailing the point of the film. It seriously reminded me of that masterfully weird aura in Errol Morris's "Gates of Heaven." But not in a good way. It was that strange. I turned to my partner with a confused grimmace, which he returned. And then, it happened. Even as I felt the first flush of very, very inappropriate giggles come over me, I knew half the people there would be really pissed if they thought I was laughing at such a somber moment. I just couldn't help it. It was like laughing in church, where the fact that you shouldn't only makes it more compellingly impossible not to. I had to turn to my partner and bury my face in his shoulder to muffle the sounds, and hope that the people around me would think I was merely crying.
I want to make it clear that I was not laughing about the dog. Shit, no. It was just the incongruity, the bizarreness of the spectacle. Because this film had been about a beautiful dog and a beautiful man who gave hope and encouragement to people. That's what it should have been about. The private passing of the dog was worth mentioning, surely. But the film took a sudden and uncomfortable lurch away from the beautiful and touching story of her life, and became a clunky, bizarre, gratitous spectacle of the dead. Of a dead dog and a weird, LA human ritual best kept private. I hope the filmmaker (who was present at the show) will forgive me for saying this, because he really did seem like a great guy with the best intentions. But...maybe he could cut that part out. At least some of it. It went on for a very long time.
Whatever its weaknesses, the film has already had considerable positive impact. After the showing, the volunteers brought in Thumper, a beautiful and sweet little pit bull who had some kind of neurological problem that left her with little control of her back legs. The staff at the shelter had assumed that she was unadoptable until they saw Diva Dog. After seeing what was possible, they decided that, given a wheelchair for her hind legs, she might find a loving home after all. How cool is that! (If I did not have a house full of dog already, I would have taken her home in a moment!)
So that is my report, for what it's worth, regarding the films presented by Pawsitively Pitbull. In spite of the minor criticisms I offer above, I actually really appreciated this opportunity to learn more about these beautiful dogs. If you would like to do something about dog fighting in Portland, please contact the beautiful people at Pawsitively Pitbull and ask how you can get involved. Also, please PLEASE call and write to your elected rep and ask them to 1) increase sanctions against dog fighters; 2) legislate alternatives to killing pit bulls; and 3) oppose any and all breed specific bans. (I forgot to mention one of the most difficult scenes of all, when the police barged into a woman's home and fell upon her little dog, dragging him away as he nervously wagged his tail. Why? She was not a dog fighter. She was a responsible person who had adopted a loving dog. But she lived in a place where the breed is banned. They are dragged away and killed there.)
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