Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
Austin Alternative Screen Scene
To the storyteller, sport is a useful tool.
Sports provide an elegant structure and ready-made conflict, into which one can easily fit any number of characters or goals. Put simply, a spoonful of sport helps the narrative go down. I love me a good sports story, and fortunately Dogsville delivers just that. While it’s a little ‘ruff’ around the edges, this Canadian documentary feature provides an exciting look into the world of agility competition and teases at deeper ideological implications beneath the surface of this canine contest.
Kirstin O’Neill makes for an endearing protagonist straight out the gate, as we’re introduced to the Canadian agility team. She’s scrappy and determined, matched only by the boundless enthusiasm of her dogs: aging legend Radical Rabbit, Posh Piranha, and the underdog mutt Crocodile Crunch. From regional qualifiers to international championships, we follow this motley crew on their aspirational journey to the top of the podium. Each trial, each tribulation, heartbreak along the way further imbues their struggle with pathos, building a strong narrative throughline.
Though the Canadians take center stage in the film, the doc takes a wide view of the field at these dog-olympics. Each team possesses a character about it, often an echo of their national identity, and the filmmakers key in on this at every available opportunity. The Japanese team, for example, is portrayed as mild-mannered and genial, the Americans are well-funded, the Italians zealous, the Russians embattled—and so on and so forth. With ample coverage, what’s shown on screen feels very truthful to the events depicted, having left no stone unturned—no obstacle missed.
But beyond the surface narrative lies a more compelling subtext: the plight of Crocodile Crunch. This classic David vs. Goliath story veers directly into an age-old distinction between purebreds and mutts. Conventional wisdom states that only purebreds have the pedigree to compete in agility contests—and to trainers, pedigree means a great deal. Mutts are believed to lack the innate intelligence and skill necessary for such challenges, but Crunchy aims to put such notions into the past. His success means a reevaluation of the status quo, a blow against the elitism present in the agility game and breeding at-large, and a win for nurture over nature.
While Dogsville doesn’t shy away from this thread, its focus tends towards a different conflict: the perfection of animals versus the imperfection of humans. In its most effective moments, this examination is tremendously emotional, as when Radical Rabbit is carried off the competition floor after an injury derails his twilight run. But by and large, scrutinizing the handlers for their imperfections, especially in an international context such as this, can’t help but feel occasionally xenophobic. While the colorful picture painted of each nation’s identity may feel innocuous to the average viewer, veteran director Rosvita Dransfeld’s statement on the film is at-best tacit in some minor stereotyping, and at-worst trying to conjure sociopolitical conflict where none ought exist when she says she’s always “looking for creative and entertaining ways to paint a picture of the socio-political state of our world, reflecting on politics, economies and cultural developments. When I learned about the world of dog sports, I knew that I had found the perfect ‘parallel universe’ to reflect on National archetypes, and our boundless desire to win.”
So, while it comes off as unsavory in this regard and isn’t able to follow through on tantalizing tidbits of classism, Dogsville nonetheless takes audiences on a sturdy and immersive trip to the host country of the Netherlands where our eyes are opened to the exciting, energetic, and entertaining world of agility.