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SXSW 2020: “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” Film Review

Besides being a universal truth, “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” is also a new documentary that was going to be showing at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Alas, COVID-19 has taken over our world now, and Mayor Steve Adler (as well as other Austin officials) knew enough to cancel Austin’s largest annual festival just a week or so before it was set to begin. But that would never stop me from watching and reviewing a whole film about how great dogs are!

We Don't Deserve Dogs
An animal rescue volunteer with her foster dog in “We Don’t Deserve Dogs”

There isn’t much structure to this documentary (or, as I like to call it, dog-umentary). It pretty much just features clips from multiple countries, running a few minutes each, as the human subjects reveal what their dogs mean to them. This isn’t a bad thing, as it’s not trying to tell a narrative or present a particular point of view like other documentary features do; it’s simply showing us slices of life around the world — and where dogs fit into those lives.

Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker made this feature together; they are both a married couple and two-person film crew. Salleh handles the direction and cinematography, while Tucker produces and takes charge of the audio recording. They clearly work well together, as no part of the production feels disjointed or halfway done. It’s impressive how many varying angles they found around the world that still come to the same universal conclusion, which also happens to be the title of the film.

The subjects are from such a variety of places around the world: Chile, Uganda, Pakistan, Italy, Vietnam, UK, Finland, Turkey, Nepal and more. The human cultures in these countries are so different, from religion to global socioeconomic status, but one thing does unite them: dogs. And that’s sort of all this film needed to do to present its message. There are no title cards, no labeling of countries or interviewees. There is plenty of dog footage, and anyone interested in this movie is probably satisfied with that alone.

Now, there is one area of the documentary that may be unexpected, and I’d like to warn viewers about it, not so that they can avoid the film, but so that they’re prepared. The main dog we get to see in Vietnam is a French bulldog named Gnocchi, and his owner is clearly fond of him. But the filmmakers also interview a butcher there who prepares and sells dog meat, along with goat and pork. Even as a vegetarian, I am in no way condemning the practices of other countries or cultures, and I think they should do what works for them. What I am saying is that it’s a sort of sensitive topic in the U.S.; I want viewers who think this will be 100% puppies and smiles to know that it isn’t (but it is about 95% puppies and smiles).

We Don't Deserve Dogs
A woman in Uganda working as her dog, Lok Oroma, stays by her side in “We Don’t Deserve Dogs”

That said, there are also some disturbing details in the stories of the Ugandans who are interviewed for the documentary. From witnessing horrible acts of violence on family members to learning to defend yourself from harm as a child, these are stories we don’t often hear in the U.S. It makes the contrast of the dogs’ roles even more stark; these people have the dogs as beloved companions and a sense of security, while the dogs are also helping them cope with PTSD. The portion filmed in Uganda is definitely the one that made me cry, and it proves even more how dogs impact us (mostly for the better).

As you may be able to tell, “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” is basically an examination of the definition of unconditional love. It’s a common refrain that dogs offer that to humans, but to see it represented in so many different ways is powerful. In addition to those stories mentioned above see truffle-hunting hounds named Picchio and Vespa in Italy, a pampered pooch named Leia who gets a big birthday bash every year, the celebration of Tihar in Nepal (when even street dogs get special care), a bull terrier being fostered in the UK, a therapy dog named Paavo providing patients with hugs, and many more. All of the languages and customs are very different, but the sameness lies in that relationship that we all have to our canine pals.

I was excited about “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” when I first read about it on the SXSW website. I personally love dogs, and I have two of my own. A whole feature dedicated to celebrating dogs and their special bond to humans was practically tailor-made for me. Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed with Salleh and Tucker’s work. If you, too, are a fan of “man’s best friend,” then I have no doubt this movie will entertain and wow you — subtitles and all.

Find more of our SXSW 2020 coverage here.

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Featured image courtesy of “We Don’t Deserve Dogs”

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