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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 January 2019

'Pick of the Litter': beloved documentary about guide dogs comes to the UAE

The film, being screened at the annual American Film Showcase, holds an impressive 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes

Primrose of the 'P-Litter' – the stars of the story. Sundance Selects
Primrose of the 'P-Litter' – the stars of the story. Sundance Selects

The annual American Film Showcase has returned to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and this year’s theme of “Determination” will see a series of fortnightly screenings until March 12, focusing on issues around disability, in partnership with the American Embassy, Cinema Akil, and the Special Olympics, which takes place in Abu Dhabi from March 14 to 21.

Launching the series was Pick of the Litter, from award-winning documentary-makers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy. The film follows the progress of a litter of puppies born at the Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) breeding centre in California – from their birth, through the rigorous two-year training programme, to their graduation as a guide dog, or, in more than half of cases, their “career change” – a polite euphemism for failing the training and being repurposed as either pets or breeding stock for the centre.

Stars of the show

It takes an average of 251 people to raise a single guide dog, according to GDB, and we meet our fair share of trainers, carers, veterinarians and support staff along the way, as well as the real stars of the movie – the “P-Litter” of Poppet, Potemac, Patriot, Primrose and Phil.

We won’t give too much away, because the film’s directors are still in negotiations with a number of distributors, broadcasters and streaming services to bring the movie to the masses following a successful festival run earlier in the year. Suffice to say, there are plenty of laughs, tears, and warm, fuzzy moments to savour over the movie’s 80-minute running time, which follows the puppies from the moment they enter the world to when they leave the training centre – at whatever stage of the process that may be. Each year, 800 dogs enter the GDB training programme, but only 300 leave as fully-fledged guide dogs.

'I think we get some bonus points for the cute puppies'

Incredibly, the film has an impressive 100 per cent score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with all 42 reviews of the film giving it the thumbs up. That’s higher than this year’s Oscar tips, such as BlacKkKlansman and A Quiet Place (both 95 per cent), and previous winners Moonlight (2016, 98 per cent) and The Shape of Water (91 per cent). The film’s rating puts it in the same rarefied air as certified classics such as 1941’s Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window.

Co-director Hardy chuckles modestly at the comparison, and admits that he doesn’t necessarily see himself as competing with Hitchcock or Orson Welles just yet: “It’s very rare to get that kind of score, you’re right, but I think we get some bonus points for the cute puppies. We have been blown away by the reviews we’ve received, though. They’ve really been phenomenal.”

Hardy adds that in a world of growing chaos and uncertainty, the film may be the panacea that audiences need. “I think in a lot of ways, this is the film people were waiting for, they wanted something that was happy and would bring people together,” he says. “I must admit, when we were getting ready to release it and take it to festivals, we were a little concerned ­because the world is spinning so far out of control, especially in the US, it’s so far out, and here we come with this movie about puppies, and we thought: 'Are we just totally out of step?'”

In the event, it seems Hardy and his co-director weren’t missing the mark. “The way it’s turned out, we’ve been to screenings and you can almost feel people go ­‘ahhhhh’ and just enjoy the ride of people doing something nice for other people, with dogs. I think that feeling extends to reviewers, too. They have to watch so many movies that are really tough and then comes something that’s just really enjoyable.

Phil, guide dog puppy at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Courtesy of Sundance Selects
Phil, a guide dog puppy at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Sundance Selects

'There's no direct link with the charity'

Unusually for a film with such strong links to an issue or charity, Hardy points out that Pick of the Litter is not a direct attempt to raise funds for GDB, although he admits that increased donations have been a side product of the movie. “There’s no direct link with the charity. We’re independent filmmakers and they allowed us access, but we tried to make a film that was as unlike a promotional film as possible,” he says. “We wanted to show the downs as well as the ups. We still hope people take home a positive message, and we know from having done so many screenings that people have chosen to donate after seeing the film. I’m not going to complain about that, but it’s not something we’re directly aiming for. It’s an organisation we definitely believe in, but we don’t work for them.”

Likewise, Hardy has no direct link to the Special Olympics, which his film was screening to promote, but this also seems to be a topic that could inspire the director in future. “I was fortunate enough to speak on a panel here the other day, and spoke with their head representative, and I’m eager to find out more,” he says. “I think it’s amazing that it’s going to be here in the UAE; I can’t imagine a better coming together than the Special Olympics. I’m really jealous that I won’t be here to see it; there’s just so much heart to it. Or maybe I will be here to see it, maybe I’ll come back. Who knows?”

The American Film Showcase screens films fortnightly on Tuesdays at Cinema Akil, Dubai, and on Wednesdays at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi; www.cinemaakil.com

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