Review: Feeding the Human Narrative of Hope: Top Dog Film Festival (Moonlight Cinema)14 February 2021
It’s common knowledge that spending time around dogs has long-term effects on raising serotonin and dopamine levels. This is why, when catching myself slipping into a relentless cycle of unhealthy coping mechanisms during the fourth month of lockdown, I decided to better use my one hour of state-mandated outdoor time to trudge over to Edinburgh Gardens dog park. For weeks it was the highlight of my day – sitting under a tree and quietly observing dogs of all sizes, breeds and temperaments frolicking around the legs of their masked-up, socially distanced humans.
Lockdown is over (rejoice!) and I don’t live near a dog park anymore (devastating), so when the opportunity arose to review the Top Dog Film Festival at the Moonlight Cinema, I jumped at the chance to sit once more in a field, surrounded by immaculately groomed canines in Gorman jackets while feasting on brie and craft beer. I went into this experience expecting a finely curated selection of short films and documentaries centred around dogs, but what I left with was a slightly uneasy feeling that alluded to concerns regarding human intervention and aggressive control over domesticated animals.
From owners forming intense, co-dependent relationships with dogs based on assumed shared trauma responses (that ignored entirely the differences in cognitive behaviour between human and canine), to filmmakers taking their dogs into extreme landscapes and situations at great risk to their safety, this film festival had me baffled from the start.
The screening opened with a harmless enough skit-style short film about a canine trainer who starts dating a germophobic dog-hater. Hilarity ensues as the man and dog fight for the woman’s affections, and while the scripting itself was humorous I found its execution jarring and forced.
The following three short documentaries were where things really started feeling off though. The first was a classic “who rescued who” tale about a man in crisis adopting a dog, which at first seemed like a touching reflection on how canine companions can provide emotional support to those who are lonely or unwell. The narrative swiftly turned, however, into an equation of human and dog suffering, imposing the owner’s cognitive processes of depression onto the psyche of his pet. To assume to know a dog’s thoughts and motivations is one thing, but to claim to share a variety of trauma-responses with your dog, rather than identifying the causes for a personal breakdown seems bizarre, no matter how much upbeat, inspirational scoring you pair it with.
Following this we were shown a high-energy, Xtreme sports style production following the life of an adrenaline-seeking traveller and his athletic dog companion. This short film was punctuated by intermittent gasps of disbelief issued from members of the audience, as the narrator sought to include his dog in increasingly dangerous pursuits such as mountain biking, white water rafting and high-speed snowboarding. There seemed to be no doubt in this man’s mind that his canine companion would keep up with the pace of his endeavours, but as an audience member I was primarily concerned for the dog’s safety, which seemed to take backseat priority to the owner’s mission towards living dangerously in tandem with his pet.
The final straw came with the third documentary, which aside from the clear issues with its content, seemed to run over twice as long as the previous short films. It was shot and edited by a Swiss film composer who had discovered that his own dog – adopted from a rescue shelter years prior – had often been seen on the streets with another dog that was currently living in the UK, having been adopted by an English woman. In a true depiction of relentless, ego-driven determination, this filmmaker deemed it justifiable to harass a woman he didn’t know into handing over her dog so the two may be reunited. His overarching agenda seemed to keep relating back to a notion of “freedom,” which only seemed shallow and misguided as it attempted to justify his emotional manipulation and entitlement when it came to the orchestration of the two dog’s lives.
I knew I wasn’t the only audience member confused by the content of some of these films – I watched as the people sat around me exchanged increasingly bewildered glances and confused laughter. Several groups even packed up and left the venue during intermission, clearly frustrated and disappointed. My mind was racing, trying to unpack the motivations behind these filmmakers and adopt a perspective of understanding, but failing each time. If the curators of the Top Dog Film Festival wanted me to leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling that rejoiced in the human-dog dynamic, then they failed by a long shot. While a big thanks is due to Moonlight Cinema for giving me the opportunity to interact with an array of gorgeous pups in a field surrounded by botanical wonders, I felt significantly let down by the screening itself. If a handful of the films could be considered funny or endearing, their merit was overshadowed by the blatant audacity of humans utilising dogs in their warped narratives of hope and companionship.