Independent Lens

Dogumentary Now: 7 Docs About Urban Dogs

Just like the human population, dogs in the city can live a life of luxury or — sadly — roam the streets looking for food, shelter and the occasional kind touch.

In honor of National Dog Day (Aug. 26) and the waning dog days of summer, here are some documentaries that examine what life is like for city dogs, whether they live in New York, Prague, or Sydney, and whether they’re the dearest things in their human’s lives or have no one but themselves to rely on. Not all of these films are completely uplifting, but each is moving, memorable and full of great pups.

Heart of a Dog (2015)

Visual artist and musician Laurie Anderson directed this thoughtful meditation about her late dog that’s also a tribute to the city of New York. She lived with her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, in the West Village, which has the highest density of dogs in the city.

“Terriers are very adaptable and sociable, so Lolabelle immediately fit right into the West Village. Within a week or two, she seemed to know everyone,” Anderson recalls over dog’s-eye-view footage of the sidewalks, people, and dogs of the Village. Of course, Lolabelle had her favorite shops and stores and made the rounds every week for a treat or a new toy.

When Lolabelle went blind, Anderson encouraged her to paint, sculpt and even create music.

The impressionistic film also focuses on how New York City changed after 9/11, the rise of video surveillance, and how the Buddhist idea of the afterlife helped Anderson say farewell to Lolabelle.

Heart of a Dog was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards.

Where to Watch:

On HBO Go

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Still Life with Animated Dogs (2002)

Filmmaker Paul Fierlinger (who also directed My Dog Tulip), recalls all the dogs he’s owned in this animated short (that originally aired on Independent Lens). The second part is set in Communist Prague of 1958, when he had a scruffy black terrier he rebelliously named “Roosevelt.”

Having a dog was considered “suspicious,” and Fierlinger says in voiceover, “Having a dog was one way to avoid conforming. With my dog and my beard, I made myself an easy target to be hated by the masses.”

Dogs were forbidden insides bars and restaurants, so Roosevelt would wait for his owner outside. Roosevelt somehow knew just the right moment to sneak in to join his human, yielding a powerful lesson: “When it comes to authority: Be sneaky and do everything under the table,” Fierlinger shares.

In the third part, he recalls rambunctious Ike, who loved long walks and destroying loose posters on kiosks, proving to be an anarchist in his own right. Long before emotional support dogs were a thing, Fierlinger created a badge identifying him as a seeing-eye dog trainer who was certified to bring his dog with him anywhere, and “it worked like magic.” With dog food non-existent and meat scarce for even humans, the badge came in handy as he and Ike had access to “the choicest leftovers in Prague.”

“Having to take care of a dog made me hold onto the last trace of decency and self-worth in me,” he says of having Ike in the bleak days of Communist Prague.

However, the film is not just amusing anecdotes about dogs: When a chance to leave for the United States arises, Fierlinger sees no way to take Ike with him and euthanizes the dog, a heartbreaking decision he presents in a startlingly matter-of-fact and unemotional way.

Once in the U.S., he gets scrappy little Johnson, with whom he continues his tradition of walking without a leash. When Johnson gets hit by a car, Fierlinger animates that terrible episode as well, although, luckily, Johnson makes a full recovery.

 

Where to Watch:

On Vimeo or here:

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Street Dogs of South Central (2013)

Queen Latifah narrates this documentary about the street dogs of the South Central area of Los Angeles.

The film follows Elsie, a Black Labrador mix, and her struggle to raise her puppies on the streets of Los Angeles. Despite the fact that the city of Los Angeles has a mandatory spay and neuter law, there are an estimated 30,000 stray dogs roaming the City of Angels. Filmmaker Bill Marin told PackPeople that he believes that number has risen since he first began filming, all despite the city’s spay and neuter law.

Producer Vince Ueber says, “It’s a problem in every city of America, so the figure [nationally] isn’t in the thousands, it’s in the millions.”

Street Dogs of South Central is an often grim watch that’s designed to bring awareness to the rising problem of pet overpopulation. Marin spent three years filming. “We got into my VW and every Saturday and Sunday morning at 5 a.m.,”he told Packpeople. “We went out to South Central and filmed every stray dog we could see.” 

Finding Elsie, who became their main character, was a stroke of luck. “One day we were filming and we saw this mom and these three tiny little puppies following her down the street. We followed her back to an abandoned house and there was another puppy waiting for them. We had no idea that that would become our story. They were around for a while, Elsie and two puppies lasted for almost five to six months out there and we were able to tell a complete story, the cycle of their life.”

Asked whether he was ever tempted to step in and save any of the dogs, he said, “It was a tough call, because it was important to tell the story and we had to tell the full story. Elsie and her daughters were really healthy and they were surviving on the streets, so it wasn’t too difficult of a call because she was such a great mother and she was teaching everything they needed to know to survive.”

But if he saw a dog struggling, he would call Animal Control, adding, “we were hesitant to do that, because we knew there was a chance they might get euthanized.”

Adds Marin, “We created this film to tell the story and it really shows people the truth of what’s going on,” and urges people to spay and neuter their dogs, and to adopt, not buy their pets.

You can local dog organizations through their web site: http://www.streetdogsmovie.com/help.html

Where to Watch:

YouTube, Amazon, Vudu

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Napoli Dogs (2005) 

If you need a more upbeat take on street dogs than the one set in South Central, this dramatized “dogumentary” should do the trick. Writer-director Barbara Fally-Puskás follows a pack of dogs in Naples, Italy, focusing on newcomer Bartolo, who looks like an Australian Sheep Dog.

The film is “narrated” by the oldest dog, the “capo” of the pack, Gennaro, who somehow has a British accent. Among his pack: Jack Russell mix Malocchio, “the Evil Eye”; black lab Partenope, “Queen of Rubbish Bins”; and Leopardi, “The Thief on Silent Paws.”

Each dog has a different food gathering strategy when they hit the beach — one likes to eat the dried-up panini left out for the birds, another dances for food from tourists and two team up to knock over garbage bins. They also hit up their favorite shops — Malocchio loves to steal from the butcher while Bartolo knows he can count on the local pet store owner for a treat.

Besides the doggie voiceover, the film takes artistic license by inventing a backstory for our leading dog: Bartolo supposedly was thrown out of a happy home as a puppy for chewing on shoes. And his mother? A collie named Lassie.

There’s also romance: Bartolo follows a pretty Dalmatian and her owners back to their posh residence, and also moons over a pedigreed poodle in a sort of live-action Lady and the Tramp.

Like Kedis cat’s-eye view of Istanbul, we also get a good look at the people and city of Naples, making this as much a travelogue as a “dogumentary.”

While lacking in verisimilitude (a dog trainer is credited), the film does boast beautiful cinematography and some highly photogenic dogs.  

From Napoli Dogs

Where to Watch:

Amazon Prime

Photos and more [official site]

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Wonderful World of Dogs (1990)

Writer-director Mark Lewis (director of the cult documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History), focuses on the colorful dogs in a suburb of Sydney, Australia in this entertaining BBC entry.

Bruce Marquette narrates as we see a pack of dogs gleeful tipping over garbage cans: “When dogs get together in a pack, they think, ‘I’m with my mates. This is our territory. And we strut. Because no one else is game to come around.'” He explains that the joy of being in a pack can lead them on jaunts of a mile or more in a day, much to the dismay of townsfolk who want to see dogs leashed.

We also meet Fugly, a German shorthaired pointer who is Australia’s most frequently impounded dog, because he’s always on the loose. Despite (or because) of his notoriety, he’s become something of a town mascot.

And we’re treated to a dramatic re-enactment of a Chihuahua named Pebbles’ alleged brush with death: She was nearly eaten by a pelican! Such are the apparent downsides of being a small dog living in Sydney.

Where to Watch:

On Kanopy (free for students, professors, and members of public libraries)

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City of Dog, A Dogumentary (2015)

In just 7 minutes, filmmaker Dimitris Lambridis sketches a vibrant portrait of the stray dogs of Athens, Greece, without resorting to voiceover or other narrative tricks.

The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is eloquently illustrated in a scene where a stray dog inspects a woman’s bag — which has a little yappy dog in it!

Among the vignettes:

Where to Watch:

On Vimeoor here:

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The Dogs of New York (2007)

“It’s a good place to live, Manhattan. People love their dogs and treat their dogs like nowhere else in the world,” says the owner of a pampered bulldog, one of many canines featured in this look at dogs in the Big Apple.

Inspired by “Humans of New York,” filmmaker Kim Wolf created Dogs of New York to celebrate the 1.25 million dogs in New York City.

Among the dogs featured are Velvet the Scottie, who eats nonfat kosher ice cream every day; Scottie the Pomeranian, whose mom takes him everywhere because of his separation anxiety; and Leroy the nearly hairless Chinese Crested, who basks in the attention at his owner’s Soho beauty salon. And who could forget Pepper, the wire-haired dachshund, who eats at the table and is described as “a spoiled little rich kid from Madison Avenue.”

Many of the dogs attend ultra-plush doggie daycare at the Ritzy Canine, whose decor includes a crystal chandelier.

But Wolf’s mission isn’t just spoiled rich pooches. She founded a nonprofit, Beyond Breed/Ruff Riders, to help provide pet food and other resources to people who can’t afford them.

Wolf told the Huffington Post that she continued “Dogs of New York because, “I’m especially interested in sharing the stories of people who might have been discriminated against or pre-judged because of appearances — whether it’s the dog, the person, or both.”

Where to Watch:

Vimeo (Rental: $.99)

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