The final scene in Buddy, a new Dutch documentary about service dogs and their human companions, is one familiar to most dog-owners; it is both ordinary and remarkable.
One of the film’s six human subjects, Edith, an 86-year-old Dutch woman rendered blind by a bomb during the Second World War, comes home after a walk in the woods with her guide dog, Makker. “It was such a revelation that I could surrender myself to him," she says, later telling the dog casually that, “You’re my muzzleface." It’s a ridiculous nickname that, as any dog owner will know, is likely one of hundreds.
Edith puts on some music, and falls onto the sofa. Within seconds, Makker is as physically close to her as he can be, his wet nose at her knee as she slowly strokes his neck. When her hand stops petting, his eyebrows raise upward, and big brown eyes yearn for more. The petting begins again. The joy returns to his face; the love is palpable. The hand stops once more, and the eyebrows raise. This repeats for 90 seconds.
This is the quiet intimacy so skillfully documented throughout Heddy Honigmann’s film, which makes its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival April 26. There is no sweeping score, no dramatic voice-over, no overt attempt to pull your heartstrings. The viewer is simply in the room, with a blind woman and her dog, listening to music. Or in bed with an autistic boy singing to his dog, as he copes with his anxiety. Or in the park with a veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, and his dog, who gives him the confidence to be out in the world, if only for moments. Or in the kitchen with a mobility-limited woman, and her dog, who injects her with medicine then gets the creamer out of the fridge for coffee. Yes, really.
To direct a film about six service dogs and their odds-defying humans and not fall into emotional traps is the true sign of an expert documentarian.
“This is the beautiful gift you get when you approach filmmaking with open eyes,” Honigmann says over phone from her home in the Netherlands. “Going in, you don’t have ideas of scenes of what you want to happen. You simply show the scenes as they happen.”
Having directed more than a dozen docs, and winning the Outstanding Achievement Award at Hot Docs in 2007, Honigmann is no stranger to the craft. From following the long-lasting effects of war in Crazy, to her upcoming film on people who live beyond 100, the director takes extreme care in presenting her subjects as who they are, without motive. It is always the human condition, presented as objectively as possible.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from sobbing like a child while watching Buddy.
Hans, Honigmann’s most endearing subject, recounts to the camera early on how he resisted a guide dog. He didn’t want to admit he needed one. But his progressive blindness nearly caused him to be hit by a train – and, 27 years later, he’s had three guide dogs. Missy, his black lab, is at his side when we meet him. For a burly, middle-aged man, I imagine he doesn’t get sentimental often. But when he talks about Missy, his eyes sparkle. “The fitting word is love, yes… She is still a dog, of course. But then, I am just a human.”
Of all the partnerships documented, Honigmann is most proud of her scenes with Trevor, a veteran who can barely exist in the world without his buddy, Mister. “It might be my best work of my career,” she says. Trevor speaks in vague, horrifying terms about what he witnessed while at war, and how – even on a park bench on a beautiful day, he always suspects something awful is about to happen.
“The piles of leaves..,” he trails off. “I wonder what could be hiding underneath.” But with his wife beside him, and his dog – who sits on the bench and stares, relentlessly, behind his owner throughout the entire conversation – Trevor is able to have a little peace of mind.
For me, one scene is the most heart-wrenching: the unexpected and sudden absence of a service dog. Honnigman zeroes in on the solo walk: Where there was once a guide dog beside a knee, there is now only a walking stick. And an owner who is visibly at a loss at the death of their best friend. But it is in the loss where we truly feel the dog’s impact.
“The grief – I could feel it, myself,” Hongmann says. “We all know what they were feeling because we have been there, too. But in the same sense, we will also never know, because these relationships, with every human and every dog, are unique.”
Buddy is about extraordinary dogs and also extraordinary humans, no doubt. They have not been dealt easy cards, and they all, in their own way, press on. Yet the film is also about the about the simple connection we all can find in dogs, and the ordinary moments – the walks, the bedtimes, the sofa hangouts – that we hold onto, forever. It’s all magic, and we are all so lucky.
Buddy screens at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival on April 26, 3:15 p.m., Lightbox; April 27, 3 p.m., Isabel Bader Theatre; and April 30, 10:30 a.m., Lightbox (hotdocs.ca)