The girl, aged 11, looks directly into the camera with grave and guileless eyes. Around her, the pleasant activities of an American summer unfold. The kids playing on the grass rush, race, run, sprint, bolt and dart chasing a ball or each other. When the sun starts to set, the lawn sprinklers start to hiss.
The young girl is waiting. Her family is waiting, too, seeing out another summer of suburban bliss while standing by, nervously. They’re waiting for a dog. When the girl speaks to the camera she says, “When I have a seizure, it’s gonna bark.”
Dogs (now streaming on Netflix) includes the story of Corrine, an 11-year-old with epilepsy in Cincinnati, and her wait for, and meeting with, a service dog named Rory. Everything depends upon the dog. Corrine’s safety and the family’s peace of mind. It’s a fierce piece of filmmaking, called simply The Kid With a Dog, and it has a huge impact. The complexity of the dynamics of family, school and community are subtly exposed. And at its centre, but slightly out of reach for ages, is the dog.
This six-episode series has been streaming on Netflix for mere days and already has a cult following. Little wonder. It transcends the genre of merely uplifting animal stories to stand as a complex portrait of families and individuals as we live now, in an increasingly complex world of cultural shifts and anxieties. Yes, it is moving, and, yes, the featured canines are often adorable, loyal and always lovable, but the story of each dog is used to unlock something more intricate and intense.
This little docu-series is a small masterpiece of emotional heft. At once restrained and revealing, it is made by a team of serious documentarians. Executive-produced by Glen Zipper and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (who made Deliver Us From Evil), with the latter directing two of the episodes, it is a magical thing – a set of stories that are moving, enriching and deeply serious. And at times the visual impact is breathtaking. Every cent of Netflix’s money has been well-spent.
In the episode Bravo, Zeus, Berg handles what might seem like a simple story of the intense emotional connection between a man and his dog. But the man, Ayham, is a Syrian refugee living in Berlin, and his Siberian Husky, Zeus, is still in Syria. They need to be reunited, but can that ever happen? We get a beautifully deft portrait of Ayham’s life in Germany and the complexity of Germany’s feelings about him. We learn about his long, dangerous journey from Syria to Germany and watch him attempt to FaceTime with a friend in Syria so that he can see and talk to his dog.
It’s formidably moving, this episode. You grow to love Zeus as much as Ayham and simultaneously get a deeper understanding of the anguish lurking under the Syrian refugee crisis. Ayham says, “In Germany, they look at you differently. And so, you find new ways to hate yourself.”
In the episodes I’ve seen, there is one constant – the near-infinite aptitude of dogs for positive responsiveness and dependability. The family in Cincinnati is facing fraught emotional times when Rory comes to help take care of Corrine. The other girls in the family are bitterly disappointed that the dog cannot really be theirs, too. Rory must bond primarily with Corrine. And still, in the end, he is just there, as if comprehending everything intuitively, kind and responsive to all of them.
The episode Ice on the Water, directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Richard Hankin, is about the love and affection between Alessandro, a fisherman in Italy, and his dog Ice, a Labrador retriever. Yet it’s also about the fact that Alessandro’s livelihood is diminishing, and it’s unlikely his children will practice the same trade, as the world and climate changes. Ice is always with him though, unchanging, joining the family for meals in a way that is almost unbearably intimate.
It would be true to say that the primary accomplishment of this excellent series – a must-see – is its celebration of the intimate, sometimes tear-inducing relationship between people and their dogs. And equally true to say it is simply gorgeous and gravely pensive. As gravely pensive, in fact, as the eyes of that young girl waiting for the dog who will help with her care and be her constant companion.