The Dog Lover: The Wrong Side of Right. 2016. ESX Entertainment. Directed by Alex Ranarivelo. USA. Review by Pete Porter.
The Dog Lover: The Wrong Side of Right, is “Based on a True Story,” which, although unspecified by the film itself, is likely that of Dan Christensen, a South Dakota breeder of hunting dogs (the filmmakers flew Mr. Christensen to the premiere, who found the film 95% accurate) (Jorgensen). The film adopts a subtle but clear point of view toward its subject, most obviously by rendering antiseptic the conditions that prompted the real-life investigation and misrepresenting the legal outcome of the case. Filmmakers have been taking liberties with history at least since The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Dog Lover fits squarely in the tradition of creating entertainment by twisting history to serve ideology. Animal advocates will do well to understand the nature of the film and the ideas that it advances, especially because it comes in an entertaining package. Executive producer Forrest Lucas has consistently opposed regulation of animal activity (Humane Society of the United States), and you should know where your film comes from just like you should know where your puppy did.
The Dog Lover opens with a found-footage montage of idyllic human-canine interactions: fire and rescue dogs, therapy dogs, and a dog nearly convulsing with joy when a soldier returns home, presumably from a long tour of duty. These images contrast with the subsequent scene, which is footage from a covert visit to a dog breeder. Conditions here are obviously unsanitary as dogs crowd into makeshift pens spotted with excrement. A man leads the duo performing the visit toward a pen with puppies, but notes that some are missing, which is not surprising given the flimsiness of their enclosure. The camera wanders off to search for the missing puppies and finds a presumably dead one between the wall and a water heater. A woman notices the camera, threats follow, and the view becomes chaotic as a chase ensues. The scene ends with the revelation that the footage and its makers are already safely back in the organization that sponsored it. Sara, who held the camera, gets praise and another field work assignment, this one solo, which involves posing as an intern studying veterinary technology.
Sara is presumably the dog lover of the title who is on the wrong side of right, at least until she realizes the error of her ways (in the logic of the film). In the beginning, she is an animal advocate who argues that breeding dogs is always wrong because it means that a shelter dog who deserves a home will not get one. But by the end, she will have accepted her dad’s claim that it’s not that simple, even turning a hidden camera pen on her boss at the animal organization (an analogue of the Humane Society of the United States) to capture incriminating footage. Sara’s transformation from an animal advocate who rejects all dog breeding to someone who admits that ethical breeding is possible offers an attractive model for the audience. In some ways, Sara “goes native” after she meets the breeder and his family and sees the care that they take with their dogs. Significantly for the film’s effect as a mainstream entertainment, she also falls in love with the breeder’s son when he rescues her from some menacing “backyard breeders” (who represent malevolent breeding) and shows her the family land where wild horses run free. Events are already in motion however, and Sara watches in horror as authorities raid the compound and seize the dogs.
That The Dog Lover manipulates the true story on which it is based to make the breeder and his family sympathetic adds irony to a film that vilifies an animal advocate for manipulating footage to make the breeder unsympathetic. Conditions depicted in the film are idyllic compared to footage from the historical raid: “The Christensen farm was littered with feces and the animals were drinking from muddy water bowls” (Hult). In addition, the film shows the breeder exonerated by a jury of animal cruelty charges, but the case was dismissed because a judge voided the search warrant after a local animal control officer omitted evidence to obtain it (Hult). Finally, the film omits how Christensen sued those who pursued the case and was rebuked by U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier, who pointed out that “the suppression of inculpatory evidence (in the original case) is not the same thing as evidence of actual innocence” (Qtd. in Hult). The Humane Society of the United States, which the film and its producers attack, through their fictional analogue in the film and elsewhere by name, was exonerated of any wrongdoing (Hult).
Despite these misrepresentations of history, The Dog Lover represents a sad but true irony that animal advocates will regret: dogs died, many from Parvo virus, because of unsanitary conditions after the rescue. This outcome is what ultimately persuades Sara to take action on behalf of the breeder, filming her former superior at the animal advocacy group admitting that, having exploited the footage of the rescue for fundraising, the case is no longer a concern. In other words, the advocacy group merely exploited the dogs; it is the breeder who truly loved them. That taking action against an advocacy group would be how the hero becomes the dog lover of the title is what should most give advocates pause; it is the ultimate poetic license of The Dog Lover.
Griffith, D. W. The Birth of a Nation. 1915. David W. Griffith Corporation. USA.
Jorgensen, Don. “The Dog Lover Based on a True Story” Keloland Television. July 5, 2016. Accessed July 25, 2016. http://origin-www.keloland.com/news/article/news/the-dog-lover-based-on-a-true-story
Hult, John. “4-year-old animal cruelty lawsuit set to go to trial.” Argus Leader. October 30, 2014. Accessed July 25, 2016. http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/crime/2014/10/30/year-old-animal-cruelty-lawsuit-set-go-trial/18188969/
Humane Society of the United States. “Protect the Harvest. n.d. Accessed July 25, 2016. http://www.whoattackshsus.org/protect-the-harvest/