Home to 14.8 million people, the City of Joy, Kolkata is known for its soulful embodiment of culture, tradition, delicacies, respect, and old world charm. It is also home to some of the greatest revolutionary and literary figures who have placed this city on the global map. However what intrigues me is the fact that the director of the documentary “Pariah Dog” has not chosen any of the aforementioned attributes of Kolkata as the prime subject of his film, instead he chose to tell the plight of the street dogs or pariah dogs of Kolkata through 4 primary characters whose lives revolve around these less fortunate dogs.
Filmmaker Jesse Alk’s documentary “Pariah Dog” is a brave attempt on making an absorbing tale of one such group of people of canine caretakers in Kolkata. The film gains intimate access to the lives of its subjects as they both care for the stray animals around them, and struggle to find their own place in this crowded megacity. Unconditional love links the stories of these 4 people. Milly, the aristocratic woman who has fallen on bad times, Pinku the artist who dreams of buying a plot of land on which he can house the dogs, Subrata the auto rickshaw driver who competes on TV game shows, and Kajal the unmarried domestic worker who all have dedicated their lives to the dogs. These four remarkable people commit to providing shelter, food and affection to the similarly displaced dogs (as well as cats, a monkey and a parrot, if dogs aren’t your thing).
The director does not employ traditional narration, a decision that skillfully adds to an overall defiance of any prejudicial context; fittingly, Pariah Dogs will live a long, timeless life as a statement against selfish modern living. Scenes that convey the physical hardship and ultimate demise of some beautiful animals will be too much for some, as will the emotional toll that an animal’s passing takes upon the carer. The film also has some elements of humour; to relieve tension and provide entertainment; Alk helps Subrata realize his Desi-pop ambitions by crafting a music video for his self-penned, lower-caste anthem. The potential that factual filmmaking has for capturing fateful moments is realized when the elderly gentleman literally crosses paths with an anti-animal cruelty demonstration, which he soon joins in chorus. The final frames, in which two of the protagonists reconnect on the traditional life-giving waterways far from the decay of the city, are a hopeful response to the call of that lonely, howling street dog. His India still exists, or at least the spirit of the land from which he came.
Jesse Alk is a director, producer, cinematographer, and editor born in Ottawa, Canada. He graduated with honors from the University of California in Santa Cruz, studied briefly at the NYU TISCH School of the Arts film department, and then attended the University of California in Los Angeles MFA Directing Program in the School of Theater, Film, and Television. He is the son of the late documentary filmmaker Howard Alk. Pariah Dog is his debut feature film.
Congratulations! What inspired you to make this film?
I first visited Kolkata in 2010, and I was hypnotized by the city from the moment I landed. The street dogs were an immediate focus for me. Something about their intense suffering, their (in my experience) friendliness, and the way they were a part of the city, but also completely separate from it drew me to them. By 2013, after three or four more trips, I had decided I had to make a film centering on the street dogs. It took about a year of planning before I made my first scouting trip to shoot some preliminary footage in early 2014, and seven months later I quit my job, gave up my apartment in Los Angeles, and dedicated myself to the film full-time.
As an audience member, what should I expect from this film?
Many people in the West have an idea of what Kolkata is like (or Calcutta, to use its former name). But there’s so much more to that incredible, frustrating, beautiful city that we see in western documentaries. More than anything, I wanted to capture the feeling of being there, which I felt was so different from anything I saw in the many documentaries shot in Kolkata focusing on slums or social problems. The city is a major character in the film, and I think if you give yourself over to it, you’ll feel like you’ve experienced a really special place which you never knew existed.
Obviously, the film is about street dogs, who are suffering is terrible, but also about the dedication of a few people whose entire lives revolves around alleviating that suffering. They aren’t perfect people. Their lives are not easy. But they all try their best, in imperfect circumstances, to make sense out of a world that is less caring than they wish it was, and they all fight to make it a little bit better. The film is sad at times, and it even can be tough to watch in parts. But we never wallow in that sadness, because the people in our film never do. They keep fighting to make their small part of the world a better place, to the best of their abilities.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Pariah Dog is the story of people who have a lot of personal challenges, but who keep moving forward, find a purpose in life, create their own identity, and fight for what they believe in. I think that’s a struggle we all can relate to. On a personal level, I made the film at a time when I was in a crisis of meaning in my own life. I felt aimless; I’d lost a sense of passion. A recent death in my immediate family had left me asking a lot of questions about mortality, suffering, the care we provide or don’t provide for each other, and what makes living life worthwhile. All I had wanted to do in life was to make documentaries, but I hadn’t followed that dream. When I felt this pull from Kolkata, I knew I had to make a film there, and knew it had to be about these lonely dogs, fighting to carve out their own piece of the world, thousands of miles from where I had lived my entire life. In the following years, I would joke with my Bengali friends and collaborators on Pariah Dog that I had flown halfway around the world to make a film about loneliness. As we cast the film, I found people who were struggling with these things, all in their own way. Life can be a hard, at times it can feel as if we are all fighting through this world alone. I think it’s one of the reasons I was able to bond with the people in the film, despite language and cultural barriers. We were dealing with the same issues, just in different ways.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
The film was originally intended to focus much more on the street dogs themselves. When I first moved to Kolkata, I thought it would be a film with very little dialogue, 70% footage of street dogs living their lives in the city, 30% observational footage of some of the people who feed them. But I really became fascinated with the people I found. I knew from the beginning that I would need very intimate footage, that I wanted to explore some very personal reasons as to why these people did this kind of work, and what their lives were like apart from it. And because there were four people, all of whom required a lot of screen time, a lot of really incredible dog footage ended up being cut in the final pass. I think in the end we found the perfect balance, but that change in focus to the human characters was a profound shift that happened early in the process.
What type of reaction/ response have you received so far?
So far the feedback has been incredible. The film premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won Best Feature. As a first-time filmmaker, winning an award like that at my very first festival was quite overwhelming. Apart from that, it has been very interesting to see how people respond. It’s not a film for everyone, there’s not a lot of context or back story, but I’ve been happy to see that not only “film people” seem to like it. We recently played San Francisco Docfest, and members of the Indian dog-rescue community flew in from as far away as Montreal, Winnipeg, Rhode Island, and San Diego just to see Pariah Dog. I was thrilled that they not only came so far to see the film but loved it. I’m even more thrilled that the reaction within India has been overwhelmingly positive. Major newspapers and online outlets are covering the film, and every person I’ve shown it to in Kolkata has been extremely positive about it. Two Bengali filmmakers separately told me that I’d made “a Bengali film,” which I think was probably the best compliment I’ve ever received.
Were you expecting a reaction that challenged your point of view about the concept of this film? What challenges were faced during the making of this film?
I had some interesting feedback at our premiere from someone who was concerned that the images in the film may be read through an Orientalist lens by people who don’t have the tools to interpret them in any other way. It’s something I’m very sensitive to. We were very conscious during the shooting to avoid what westerners think of as “exotic” images when possible, to avoid unnecessary images of poverty, and to be as focused and specific as possible. It’s not a film about those things, so we were very conscious in the edit about how much material which might be read that way was included. I edited the film in Kolkata, with advice from my local collaborators and other Bengali filmmakers, who really helped me find things in the footage I might have missed otherwise and to avoid some obvious cultural pitfalls. But the idea that I was responsible for the reactions of people who might misinterpret the footage based on their own prejudices, and that I was responsible for trying to mitigate that damage before it happened was new to me. I’m still not sure how I feel about that, but I think I can’t control what the reaction is, I can only focus on my own process and own intentions. And I know for sure that my intentions were good and that I was as honest as I possibly could be. Everyone except for myself who worked on the film up until the sound mix was from Kolkata, and together we tried to make something different, which didn’t fit into any of those western stereotypes.
How would you prorogate to amplify this film’s message?
We’re still looking for festival programming through 2020, commercial distribution, and more press opportunities. We’d be open to talking with sales agents, as well.
What type of impact or message would you like this film to give out?
I hope that people can become more aware of the issues surrounding street dogs in India. I think changing perceptions of the dogs and their worth can have a massive effect on the quality of their lives. When the local community embraces the dogs so much can change, the animals become more integrated, are treated better, and cause fewer problems. The film is called Pariah Dog because of the way it mirrors some of the issues our human characters face, but we all prefer the term “community dogs.” I’m really hoping for a good festival release in India later this year, and hope to find some kind of online distribution which will make it available within India so that some of that discussion takes place around the film.
What’s that key question/factor that will create a buzz about this film?
Is it right to focus on animal suffering in a place with so many challenges for the human population? No easy answers to that one, although the people in the film have very strong opinions about it.
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Currently I am not working on anything specific because I had to invest my everything into making this film, but yes I have some ideas to work on and that will happen with time.
With a Post Graduate in Marketing Management, and 14 years of corporate experience in General Insurance domain, Antara is based out of Delhi and shuttles across India for her work commitments. In order to pursue her higher education, she left home at the tender age of 16 and has stayed in different cities of India, allowing her to meet people from different backgrounds. As a voracious reader, traveller, and orator, Antara has always found the art of writing extremely therapeutic as it helps her channel her inner energy about various social issues.