Review: Pick of the Litter14 December 2018
When someone tells you a story, regardless of how accurately the events are depicted, framing is important.
Framing is the way events, thoughts, and actions are presented to the audience. It’s not as straightforward as the sequence of events. Individuals may (and often do) interpret framing differently—is Bayonetta a feminist character, a male fantasy, or some weird amalgamation of both?—and the creator of the story may disagree with large parts of their audience—is Fight Club a celebration or a criticism of male violence? Even when the framing is clear large parts of the audience may disagree with it (such as the Snape is the worst vs Snape is a hero discourse). Regardless, or perhaps because of, how much framing is debated in media criticism and amongst fans, it’s clearly important to the story being told. So when a notable amount of blind/vision impaired and deaf people start saying “it’s fucked up that Helen Keller is generally taught in schools through the lens of her teacher, a woman who was also deaf but rarely depicted as such, rather than focusing on her own achievements and struggles,” that framing becomes a social issue.
When I watched Pick of the Litter, I was pleasantly surprised to see the way Janet and Roland, two blind/low vision people on the waiting list for guide dogs, were framed.
At the start, the movie goes through a montage of people talking about their guide dogs saving their lives. These people are unnamed, and this framing by itself wouldn’t have changed the narrative much. The trainers all talk throughout the film about how guide dogs have to be trained to disobey commands when it is necessary to protect their handler from harm. Seeing this foreshadowed at the start could be framing for the unique challenges of training guide dogs.
However, throughout the movie, we hear from Roland and Janet, two people on the waiting list for guide dogs. Watching them talk about legitimate issues they face and the difference a guide dog will make in their lives feels like good representation—they’re framed as real people who desire relatable things like being able to go hiking and having the freedom to wander streets without a proper curb. The movie doesn’t frame them the way disabled characters are often framed in both fiction and non-fiction media (tragic, hideous, incapable of caring for themselves). They laugh while talking about the limitations of canes, and their desires for greater autonomy are realised at the end. Neither Roland nor Janet get subjected to the Helen Keller treatment—they may be the reason the story is happening, but they aren’t reduced to a problem the guide dogs are there to solve. The problem is that Roland wants to go hiking, Janet wants to have the confidence to navigate the world safely, and both of them want to avoid the kind of harm that can come from having to rely on a cane instead of a canine.
Ultimately, though, the story of this movie is about the ‘P litter’, as they are named. The lives of these dogs are compelling – they are trained from birth and the people involved in their care keep telling us how much they want the dogs to succeed, for the dogs’ sake. They’re framed as autonomous people by the people who take care of them and train them. When the first pupper to be ‘career changed’ gets booted we’re told it’s because he “chose” to. We are told to think of the dogs’ needs, their moods, their individual temperaments, and their personalities throughout the film. These characteristics hold deep narrative significance because they are ultimately the things that determine where they end up.
Additionally, even though the film is about them, everything we know about the dogs is given to us by the people who interact with them. The challenges faced by the many people involved in training and raising these dogs is given much attention by the film, and is the lens through which the dogs are framed. They can’t communicate with us, but all their experiences and feelings are interpreted for us by the people who care for them. We are told when Poppet is feeling overwhelmed, that Patriot is a little jackass, and that Potomac has chosen not to become a guide dog because he won’t stop getting distracted by bits of paper. This isn’t inherently bad – the dogs are clearly well loved and cared for, and in the absence of abuse I don’t think a documentary that frames animals as characters in their own right need to look beyond their carers, handlers, and trainers to understand the animals themselves. But it’s worth noting that the guide dogs themselves who are the stars of this show are being framed and interpreted for us, mostly by people who do not themselves need a guide dog. Janet and Roland both clearly love the guide dogs they end up with, but the time we see them spend together is a pleasant epilogue to a story that seems to primarily be about the dogs relationships with their raisers and trainers.
Right before the end of the film, we get a montage of everyone involved in the process overlayed with a speech from Janet thanking them all for getting her and her dog to this point. I don’t doubt that this speech is genuine, nor do I want to diminish the incredible work of the people involved in the process of training the guide dogs – their stories where compelling because they clearly really cared about what they were doing. That said, I felt uneasy watching a movie that features disability as such a prominent theme focus the vast majority of the screen time to the emotional journey of able bodied people attempting to improve the lives of disabled people.
To be clear, I don’t think that movies need to only be about one thing. I think that, with a movie like this, the viewers will probably leave with one main framework through which they interpret the movie. In a world where disability narratives are so often interpreted through the people who are considered ‘experts’ in our lives, I can understand the potential issues with a film that spends a lot of time talking to able bodied people about the issues faced by people who are blind or have low vision. I can also see how a film that takes the time to get to know Janet and Roland, and frames them as autonomous people seeking greater freedom through support animals, is an incredibly positive step forward. Helen Keller isn’t a symbol in this movie, she’s a nice middle aged woman who wants to be able to walk around without accidentally hitting herself in the gut with a large stick because her cane got stuck in a crack on the footpath. A person could easily watch this movie and go away only thinking about the able bodied people and dogs, with Janet and Roland as a framing device used to show the audience how truly important and wonderful they all are. They could also go away thinking about how sad it is that most streets are very inaccessible without guide dogs, but that a lot of blind people do not have the opportunity to have a guide dog. The movie doesn’t go into this much, but it’s there.
Should the movie have gone into it more? This movie isn’t trying to be about disability, and including human moments with blind and low vision people brings the movie a long way past Me Before You type representation. But, considering the current state of disability representation, does the film have a responsibility to ask those tough questions about how disability is viewed, and the systematic barriers faced by blind and low vision people? Does a feel good movie about cute guide dogs owe the disabled community a more complex examination of the issues they face?
You may disagree with me, but I think the answer is yes. The experiences of disabled people are so frequently framed as plot devices to motivate or somehow change the lives of abled people, and our communities are no strangers to being interpreted into the language of feel good fuzzies, ignoring disability activism and personal experiences in favour of a beautiful reassuring ending. I don’t begrudge anyone their 60 minutes of wholesome content, but if you want to pet the dog, you have to ask the owner first.
Pick of the Litter is in cinemas from January 10.