Interview with Darcy Dennett, Director of the Documentary “The Champions”
Scarred both emotionally and physically, Little Red was used as a breeding machine.
Cherry was terrified and timid, severely traumatized from what he’d suffered. From Jonny Justice’s bubbly personality, it’s hard to believe how hard his early years were.
These dogs are part of a group of rescues with unique stories to share. The history drawing them together is that they were rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring and they not only lived to tell the tale, but are defying many who thought they were beyond rehabilitation. Many of the 22 dogs—considered some of the toughest cases—taken in by Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare/no-kill group, are now thriving in loving homes. Jonny has even become a therapy dog.
“Prior to the Michael Vick case, the traditional, historic treatment of dogs from fight busts was simply to regard them as damaged goods and to kill them,” says Francis Battista, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society. “All along, we’ve been advocating for them to be given a chance. Our experience has shown that there’s no need to be afraid of the dogs or blame them just because of the situation they came from.”
The new feature-length documentary “The Champions,” directed and produced by Darcy Dennett, tells the inspirational story of some of these rescued dogs and their incredible ability to forgive and love. It also highlights the prejudices many pit bull parents suffer because of the unfair stigma attached to this breed.
The film is powerful and moving, but expect more happy tears than sad. There is no dog fighting footage shown.
We were so taken by this film, that we wanted to learn more. Dennett, Best Friends Emergency Response Manager John Garcia, Best Friends Director of Animal Care Michelle Weaver, and Best Friends Senior Legislative Attorney Ledy VanKavage answered our questions about the dogs and the film:
The Honest Kitchen: Darcy, as director and producer, what was your motivation behind making “The Champions”?
Darcy Dennett: In a sense, I didn’t choose the topic—it chose me. From 2007-2009 I was the producer of National Geographic’s TV series “Dogtown,” and during the course of the series we followed the work of Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. The Vick case broke as we were shooting the second season and we covered the initial rescue of the dogs. The memory of these dogs never left me, and I continued to follow their lives. I became increasingly aware that there was a powerful story waiting to be told. From there, it was simply a matter of figuring out how to go about making it happen—to me it was very important to have an independent voice, to be able to tell the story in a way that was true to what I’d experienced.
THK: Why is it such an important film of our time?
DD: “The Champions” tells the story of a group of dogs that many wanted killed. But Best Friends Animal Society, BAD RAP, and a handful of other organizations believed in the dogs, and their success proves that each and every dog is an individual, and that their lives were well worth saving. Today, there is a growing awareness around industrial farming, and all kinds of issues pertaining to animal rights, justice, and compassion. To me, the film is not only about this group of pit bulls rescued from a dogfighting ring, it’s about the value of each and every life.
THK: What is the ultimate goal of the film?
DD: On the surface, “The Champions” is a documentary about the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring and the rescue and redemption of over 50 dogs that many wanted killed. But to me the film is about much more. It’s about the significance of the relationship humans have with animals, and our responsibility to be their voice, as they don’t have the ability to speak for and defend themselves.
I hope audiences walk away from the film with a more informed point of view about pit bulls and a renewed inspiration for the relationships with the animals in their own lives, as well as the animals we share the planet with.
Above all, I hope audiences walk away with a warm and overflowing heart. The story of the resilience of these dogs is meant to be uplifting and inspirational. So far it seems like we’re hitting the mark.
THK: How long has this film been in the making?
DD: I followed the dogs when they were first rescued in 2008. We licensed footage from National Geographic’s series “Dogtown” to show what the dogs were like when they first arrived, combined with footage and photographs shot through the years, and then followed up with five adoptive families across the country to see how the dogs are doing today. From start to finish, not including archival material already shot, the film has taken nearly three years to complete.
THK: Did you experience any challenges in shooting the film?
DD: One of the biggest challenges, logistically, was simply filming with dogs rescued from such an extreme situation. We wanted to capture what the dogs were really like in their natural environments but that’s challenging when some are still not trusting of new people and situations. We built padding into the shooting schedule to give the dogs time to get comfortable with the crew when we first arrived. At first, I’m sure to some of the dogs, the camera and the boom we used to record sound might have seemed like weapons. But just like human subjects, when you hang around long enough, they start to get bored and ignore you.
Creatively, the biggest challenge in independent film is that you have the freedom to express your own voice, which is very challenging because it’s a world of infinite, never-ending possibilities. It sometimes feels that the project that you’ve devoted yourself to so fully will never be good enough, that if only you could work a few more hours, days, weeks, months, years, it would be that much better. The only limitation is how far you personally want to take it.
THK: The film deliberately avoids visuals of dogfighting and cruelty to animals. Please tell us why.
DD: While it was important to set up the history of these dogs—that they were rescued from a notorious dogfighting situation—it was even more important to me that audiences were not afraid to see the film. Most people have less than zero tolerance for visuals of cruelty towards animals, so we made the decision early on to focus on the positive and the result is an inspiring and uplifting film.
The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. A handful of people have said that “it’s the best documentary I’ve ever seen,” which is such a nice compliment, especially for someone who’s seen as many documentaries as I have. One person said they loved me. Another person said they felt the film was about love, which is such a wonderful thing to say about a film with dogs rescued from a fighting ring. I’m surprised people seem to have such a deeply emotional response to the film, that they seem so moved by it.
It’s such a powerful story in and of itself, but people seem to respond to the fact that it’s told in such a positive and uplifting way. There are no hard-to-watch scenes that will make your heart bleed. It’s an inspirational story about overcoming difficult odds and following your dreams. What these dogs have achieved, how far they have come, and the people who helped these dogs along the way is so inspirational.
THK: Please talk about the discrimination against pit bulls and other breeds across the country and what forms that breed discrimination can take.
DD: Most people aren’t aware that there are extremely unfair bans against pit bulls in Miami-Dade County, in Denver, and in hundreds of communities across the country. Some shelters won’t allow pit bulls to be adopted out. Some homeowner policies refuse to issue a policy if there’s a pit bull in the house. There are apartment buildings that do not allow pit bulls. There’s legislation that deems victims rescued from dogfighting situations as vicious and requires that they be killed automatically. We are targeting specific places around the country to screen “The Champions,” places with breed discrimination. We hope the film will change the way people perceive not only dogs rescued from fighting situations, but pit bulls, other dogs, and animals in general.
THK: What awards has the film won?
DD: We were thrilled and humbled to win the Zelda Penzel Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award at the Hamptons International Film Festival where the film premiered, and we also won the Starz People’s Choice Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Denver Film Festival. There’s an extreme ban on pit bulls in Denver, so that award was particularly meaningful.
THK: How did the dogs followed in the film change, adapt, progress throughout their recovery?
John Garcia: The dogs in the film that came to Best Friends each had individual needs and progressed at their own pace. They all were under-socialized when they arrived and each offered different challenges. We spent a lot of time socializing each of them to new people, other dogs and places, and building life skills such as going through doorways, playing with toys, getting into cars, etc. They all made significant progress and continued to do so once they went into their homes. At the sanctuary, Little Red started out very quiet and not confident and eventually she became much more outgoing and, in fact, was known as a little diva.
THK: What kinds of awful things were these dogs subjected to and what was their rehabilitation like?
JG: We can’t really speak to what the dogs were subjected to as we started working with them once they were seized. There were things that were found at the site that indicated forced breeding, extreme physical conditioning and possible exposure to multiple drugs.
The work with the dogs was slow and challenging for some. For others it seemed like they made progress quickly. We really looked at each dog individually and determined what they needed at any given time and adjusted as needed. We took the time that was needed for each dog and documented progress on a daily basis. Our team was amazing at communication and consistency in working with the dogs.
THK: Who was involved in their emotional and physical rehab and what kinds of treatments were done?
Michelle Weaver: We put together a team of caregivers, trainers, and medical staff who provided care for the dogs and addressed [individual dogs’] needs from day one. The caregivers and trainers spent a significant amount of time developing relationships and trust with the dogs, socializing them, and providing training and behavior modification as needed. The medical team provided basic care as well as helped those dogs that had specific medical conditions such as Babesia, orthopedic problems and cardiovascular issues.
THK: How many of the dogs remain at Best Friends and how many were adopted out?
MW: Six dogs remain at the sanctuary, 3 dogs passed away in our care due to medical conditions, and 13 dogs went home.
THK: How have the dogs at Best Friends progressed?
MW: The dogs still remaining at Best Friends have all progressed. Some will stay with us due to their special needs. Those who do need to stay with us get a significant amount of enrichment and love. Two of the dogs are still working towards their CGC (Canine Good Citizen) certification but due to their past and fearfulness, progress is slow.
THK: How big is the problem of dogfighting?
Ledy VanKavage: Dogfighting is a brutal, abusive, and underground crime. It’s hard to have a valid estimate of how much of it goes on but it takes place in a variety of settings and economic backgrounds. It can be good old boys fighting dogs in the South to urban wannabe gangsters. The dogs are the true victims of this abuse and deserve a chance to be saved.
The film is available to download directly from www.ChampionsDocumentary.com and www.BestFriends.org/Champions, and it is also available for download on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video, and VUDU. There are also upcoming screenings across the country scheduled. Don’t miss your opportunity to see this inspiring film.