g The Film Panel Notetaker: Stranger Than Fiction - "Snowblind" - January 12, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - "Snowblind" - January 12, 2010

January 12, 2010
New York, NY

Stranger Than Fiction's Thom Powers and "Snowblind" Director Vikram Jayanti. Photo by Brian Geldin.

 Tuesday saw the official opening of the new season of Stranger Than Fiction with an appropriately snowy-titled screening of Vikram Jayanti’s ("Game Over - Kasparov and the Machine") “Snowblind,” which Thom Powers noted during the post-screening Q&A was their most controversial film yet. Reason being, he received protests via email from animal rights advocates about the content of the film, that being the racing of dogs in Alaska’s famous 1,000-mile-plus dog sledding race, the Iditarod. But the protests didn’t stop Powers from showing the film on Tuesday. In fact, he told me when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, he received no protests at all. In “Snowblind,” Jayanti takes us on the incredible journey of 23-year-old Rachel Scdoris of Oregon, who is legally blind, and is preparing to go on her third Itidarod. When she finally embarks on her sled with her dogs across the bleak Alaskan wilderness, what ensues is a remarkable and dramatic narrative. We see Rachel as a perky young woman with spirit and determination, despite her disability, which never seems to hinder her. She does get help along the way with another “musher” named Joe, who according to the race’s rules, must go with her just to lead her, but can never physically help her, and she doesn’t ever really seem to need it, except perhaps when her dogs get stuck. With not only patience, but also love, Rachel gets through any obstacle, but it gets harder and harder along the way, and the film successfully ensnares us in its suspense. There are so many twists and turns and highs and lows in the film, none of which I will reveal here, because you will just have to discover them on your own when and if you get a chance to see it yourself. Therefore, any discussion of these particular plateaus in the film that were discussed during the Q&A have been purposely left out of my notes below, which highlight more of the inner workings of the production and psychology behind the characters and director’s choices.

Powers began by asking Jayanti what got him involved with wanting to make this film, and what was it like working in these extreme conditions? Jokingly, Jayanti replied that he’d seen "March of the Penguins" and "Grizzly Man" and “if crazy Werner could do it, I could add to my muster if I do it in mid-winter.” He said the amazing thing about shooting in the cold weather, the camera’s batteries would drain in about three minutes, so they all had to carry spare batteries inside their clothing. They had enough money to do a rehearsal trip the year before the actual shoot. He wanted to find out what it would be like. Walking around in the snow in  minus 45-degree weather, they would get really tired, really quickly, and thought to lie down for a minute…“and that’s how you die.”  They worked out really quickly that they should always stand at the side of each other, never being out of site. The whole experience to him seemed sort of spiritual, and they always felt the claw of death coming up from underneath the snow.

Powers then explained that “Snowblind” turned out to be the most controversial film that Stranger Than Fiction has ever shown, because he’d been receiving emails everyday from people who are against the Iditarod. Had Jayanti and Rachel also experienced some of this? Jayanti said he remembered that someone in Oregon came over to check all 105 of Rachel’s dogs and told him that it’s amazing that these dogs could live to be about 19 and 20 years old, where most people’s pet dogs only till about eight. Jayanti said he doesn’t have a particular opinion about the rights and wrongs of mushing, but he said the dogs do seem to live longer and love running. “I don’t know whether to judge it or not,” he said.

Jayanti said Rachel is a very private person and he had less luck getting inside of her than the other people who work with her. He began thinking the reason she did the Iditarod was so she can get as far away from people as she possibly can.

Powers asked Jayanti about his thoughts on Rachel’s relationship in the film with her father. “I get sued a lot when I make a film,” Jayanti replied, so he confined himself to saying that in a universal position, all adolescents at the cusp in believing that their father is a “g-d and a dick,” he thinks it was very difficult for her to become fully independent. He said she’s 23 and he really shouldn’t call her an adolescent, but in many ways because of her disability, has kept her adolescent, therefore it was a difficult relationship. He does know for a fact that the minute she made enough money from endorsements after her first Iditarod, she built a house on the huge lot that they live on in a trailer and put her father in the house and she stayed in the trailer.

A question from the audience was if Rachel has any relationships outside of her own family, to which Jayanti said that she has a bunch of friends in Oregon, but he doesn’t know if she has a romantic relationship. He doesn’t really go too deeply into people’s personal lives. He’s more interested in their public lives. She attracts a lot of attention, so she meets a lot of people and is really charming and lovely, and you also get to see her at her worst during certain moments [which I won’t reveal] during the race.

Given her privacy, what has been Rachel’s reaction to the film, Powers asked. Jayanti said he thinks she is too professional to tell him what she really thinks. He suspects that she may think that he was unfair about the dogs. It was her father’s idea that maybe she should mix English Pointers with Huskies, which she kind of sticks with, but almost no one else in mushing does that anymore. He thinks she feels he was unfair about the role that the dog breeding played.

Powers said it was an interesting dynamic in the film the interviews Jayanti ask Rachel along the race. Was that something he imagined from the beginning would be a component or did it just come out that way? Jayanti said he went into doing this film with the fantasy that she had this tremendous darkness inside of her that she could only exorcize in the great wilds of Alaska, and when you bring in any pre-conceived fantasy in the making of a film, you’re always going to be wrong. For a long time, he was always sort of trying to crack her open to admit that it was hell being blindish and being caught between her father and hell by being hated by so many people in the mushing community because they feel she’s a danger to other mushers. He thought she would give it up. He thought this would be a very interesting dog film to make. She resisted that for a long time, so he kept pushing. He realized that she was not going to give it up, and he was chasing the wrong story. He’d completely forgotten that she was doing the most incredible things. A lot of the stuff he pushed, he regrets. He cut a first version of the film, which was much darker and realized that the film didn’t like her at all, so he took a couple of months off and he came back to re-cut it to get back in some sense of admiration and affection for her. He did want her to step outside the zone of denial and admit that this fantasy she had of winning the race was not a real fantasy and unrealistic.

From the audience, someone asked Jayanti if he’s given much thought to using the film as a teaching tool and to raise awareness of disabilities. He said that Rachel herself does a lot of work and speaks to high schools, and he hopes his film can become a part of that. He said this is the first time in a long time that he doesn’t own the film, Discovery owns it. He suspects that they will be far more reticent about distributing it, because he imagines they’ll be far more pressured then Powers was from the animal rights community.

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At 12:22 PM , Blogger Sled Dog Action Coalition said...

The Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering for the dogs. Snowblind should have detailed the cruelites. What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons. At least 142 dogs have died in the race. Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod, including two dogs on a doctor's team who froze to death in the brutally cold winds.

During training runs, Iditarod dogs have been killed by moose, snowmachines, and various motor vehicles, including a semi tractor and an ATV. They have died from drowning, heart attacks and being strangled in harnesses. Dogs have also been injured while training. They have been gashed, quilled by porcupines, bitten in dog fights, and had broken bones, and torn muscles and tendons. Most dog deaths and injuries during training aren't even reported.

On average, 52 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do finish, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who complete the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

Iditarod dog kennels are puppy mills. Mushers breed large numbers of dogs and routinely kill unwanted ones, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, including those who have outlived their usefulness, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged, drowned or clubbed to death. "Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses......" wrote former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper.

Dog beatings and whippings are common. During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, "Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective...A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective." "It is a common training device in use among dog mushers..."

Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens.. Or dragging them to their death."

During the race, veterinarians do not give the dogs physical exams at every checkpoint. Mushers speed through many checkpoints, so the dogs get the briefest visual checks, if that. Instead of pulling sick dogs from the race, veterinarians frequently give them massive doses of antibiotics to keep them running. The Iditarod's chief veterinarian, Stu Nelson, is an employee of the Iditarod Trail Committee. They are the ones who sign his paycheck. So, do you expect that he's going to say anything negative about the Iditarod?

Most Iditarod dogs are forced to live at the end of a chain when they aren't hauling people around. It has been reported that dogs who don't make the main team are never taken off-chain. Chained dogs have been attacked by wolves, bears and other animals. Old and arthritic dogs suffer terrible pain in the blistering cold.

The Iditarod, with all the evils associated with it, has become a synonym for exploitation. The race imposes torture no dog should be forced to endure.

Margery Glickman
Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org


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