The feature documentary debut from director-cinematographer-editor Jesse Alk, Pariah Dog, will break your heart. The many hats that the Ottawa-born filmmaker wears is crucial. While the core topic is a natural tearjerker, the cinematic craft behind its tales of man’s best friends – and the humans who care for them – raises this well above the level of your typical Animal Planet crowd-pleaser.

The first heartbreak comes before the opening credits roll. Night scenes, with a Big Ben lookalike looming over Kolkata, show relatively quiet moments in the bustling city. A man herds goats down the middle of the road. Packs of dogs wander in and out of the street. Standing next to an inactive Uber vehicle, a light-colored mutt, all alone, howls. He watches as a pack gathers up the street, playing and humping, and as he approaches to join them, pack members break out to chase him away.

The Indian pariah dog is a breed also known as the South Asian pye dog, but the name has come to be applied to stray dogs all over South Asia. Alk, with an eye both artful and compassionate, observes a handful of Kolkata, India, residents who, despite their own struggles, take care of such pariahs, and reveal their own dashed dreams.

It would be easy to make a sentimental movie about stray dogs in an impoverished land. But Alk isn’t merely prettifying the third world; his gorgeous images signify. He finds rich colors and beauty in a wretched place, and in that opening sequence alone weaves a taut, clear narrative without words, like something out of early Scorsese or mid-period Wong Kar-wai.

After that pre-credit sequence devoted to canines, the human element appears. Dog lovers beware; shots of starving, mortally ill dogs are disturbing, but there’s hope, thanks to people like Pinku, an artist who’s unable to sell his sculptures and drives a taxi to pick up extra money. “They love me a lot,” he says, referring to the dogs he takes care of, “so I consider myself a rich guy.” Or Kajal, who works with Milly and lives in a hut that can barely keep out the elements.

With all this poverty around him, Alk’s stunning images appear as grace notes amid desperation. Much as people try to beautify their surroundings with cheerful lights and balloons, and bright neon signs in a busy marketplace, those who spend their lives tending to strays use a significant portion of their meager resources to take care of those even less fortunate.

The dogs may draw you into this damaged world, but their human caregivers provide even more pathos. With a voice that vaguely resembles the elder Bette Davis, Milly comes across as a Miss Havisham-like figure, lamenting her bad choices in human companionship; animals are more dependable, she seems to have learned. But it’s Subrata, 62 at the time of filming, who’s the film’s real human star. He can barely afford to take care of himself, but he tends to dozens of strays he sees on his auto-rickshaw route, and his musical ambitions give him a sweet dream – not of making his own fortune, but of having enough to take care of suffering dogs.

Pariah Dog depicts run-down streets that are no place for man or beast; in one shot that’s both horrifying and kind of hilarious, we see barefoot children playing on a muddy riverbank while a man publicly urinates a few feet away from them. But despite such sordid details, Alk has a great respect for the country and its canine-loving subjects, who can’t depend on clean running water but still take the time to give dead animals a proper burial. Kajal and Subrata both lament that they have no future. But the film ends with some hope as we see lost animals finding a sense of community. If only humanity could do the same.

Summary
The cinematic craft behind its tales of man’s best friends—and the humans who care for them – raises this well above the level of your typical Animal Planet crowd-pleaser.
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CANINE BEAUTY
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