Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker’s new documentary, We Don’t Deserve Dogs, opens by introducing us to a stray dog named Chino (or Rucio or Coloso, depending on whom he’s visiting), living on the streets of Chile. He’s so sweet-natured that he wins the hearts of everyone who comes in contact with him. This sets the tone for the film that follows.
Though it’s not quite the warm and fuzzy picture you’d expect from the title, We Don’t Deserve Dogs is an affectionate look at mankind’s enduring relationship with canines. Often, the film’s focus is on the humans, although the dogs play an important part in each of their stories.
Along with the visit to Chile, we’re transported to Uganda, Peru, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Finland, Romania, Vietnam, Nepal and Scotland, and the people we meet at each destination have a different, insightful – and sometimes heartbreaking – story to tell.
In Uganda, a woman describes how she and her three siblings were recruited as child soldiers and forced to kill. She’s the only one left of the family, as her brothers died one by one, including the brother who was murdered while she watched. Thanks to Uganda’s therapy dog program, she has a canine companion who helps her get through her bouts of PTSD.
Another former child soldier says he would have killed himself if not for his comforting friend.
In Pakistan, a young woman who had been treated as an outcast in her Muslim community because of her love of sports and tomboy appearance found a dog that had literally been thrown away in a pile of trash and was near death.
She took him to the vet and worked diligently on his recovery. She adopted him and they formed a strong bond. Since Muslims consider dogs unclean and just as outcast as she was, this was a relationship that was meant to happen.
In Nepal, during an annual celebration known as Kukur Tihar (Day of the Dog), all of the canines are adorned with necklaces and their heads painted with dust markings. And they are given lots to eat, of course.
Elsewhere, we attend a hilarious, elaborate birthday party for someone’s beloved canine complete with cakes and presents and lots of appreciative partygoers.
In Scotland, we meet the dogs that hang out in pubs with their human companions whose accents are as thick as fog. One of the humans is a pet rescuer who nursed a bull terrier back to health and is heartbroken to face the day that she’ll have to deliver the beloved creature to its new owners.
Also included in the documentary is a quite disturbing sequence in Vietnam, where dogs are traditionally killed and cooked as food. This sequence seems to be the antithesis of the film’s overriding theme, but when you consider it for a while, you can see why the filmmakers included it. It rounds out the picture of the canine’s place in human society and makes you think.
Fortunately, Salleh had the good taste to keep most of the unpleasant details offscreen – or just on the periphery. This isn’t Mondo Cane, after all.
Salleh’s cinematography is gorgeous, frequently shot at dog’s-eye level to bring us closer to their world. And the world is so beautiful, after all.
The score by Blake Ewing is a nerve-tester, however. Sentimental and almost funereally solemn, it’s one long song that runs on an endless loop throughout the film.
Nevertheless, those who love dogs – and those who appreciate intriguing documentary filmmaking – will find much to enjoy in this thoughtful and heartfelt production.
Release dates TK because of the current crisis. Photos by Matthew Salleh.