Review of The Last Dogs of Winter (2011)

Posted by Brandy Dean September 20, 2011 6 Comments 2243 views

The Last Dogs of Winter poster - Costa BotesThe Last Dogs of Winter explores Brian Ladoon’s struggle to preserve the Canadian Eskimo dog, or Qimmiq, the rarest registered breed of dog in the world, from extinction. Assisted by an adventurous New Zealander, Caleb Ross, Ladoon breeds Eskimo dogs against the harsh backdrop of Churchill, Manitoba and fights off polar bears to do it. As a documentary, The Last Dogs of Winter is bit uneven in focus, but the subject matter is engaging, and Ladoon is, shall we say, a character.

I suppose there is a lot to be said about the Inuit and the relationship they had with their dogs. This documentary does touch the topic, and presumes that this is a given. Not being Canadian, but having seen Nanook of the North, I get it. To lose these dogs would be a tragedy and they exist today only through the efforts of Ladoon and organizations like the Eskimo Dog Research Foundation. I would have liked for The Last Dogs of Winter to explore the topic a bit more, but it wasn’t the ultimate focus of the doc.

Brian Ladoon - The Last Dogs of Winter - Costa BotesWhat I would like to have know more about is the relationship between Brian Ladoon and his Churchill neighbors. Mention is made that he’s a divisive figure in the community and that many people do not agree with him, but it’s all expository and never really depicted. There is also mention made that people feel Ladoon is cruel to the dogs because he keeps the outdoors, at the mercy of the elements and the polar bears. Ladoon offers cogent explanations for both complaints. First, the dogs are made to withstand the harsh Canadian winter. Second, the dogs aren’t afraid of the bears. In fact, we are treated to much footage of dogs frolicking with bears. It’s riveting.

The Last Dogs of Winter also never addresses the question of why or for what the dogs are worth saving. It takes as a fact in evidence that they are worth saving and never addresses the issue of work. Brian Ladoon works very hard to maintain the integrity of the gene pool of Canadian Eskimo dogs, but they remain purposeless in the contemporary society. One suspects that Ladoon had something bigger and better in mind for his dogs (mention is made of running teams of dogs) but got bogged down along the way in the persnickety details of finances and resources.

The Last Dogs of Winter

It’s no surprise that a fiercely independent, abrasive, and obstinate character like Brian Ladoon would have both the gall and perseverance to save an entire breed of dogs. In the end, he strikes me as the human equivalent of his Eskimo dogs -  beautiful example of a breed teetering on the brink of extinction and already tumbling in the abyss of purposelessness. If The Last Dogs of Winter winds its way to your area, be sure to see it. Just expect to feel a little sad afterwards.

Watch The Last Dogs of Winter Trailer:

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The Last Dogs of Winter director, Costa Botes, wrote a detailed blog entry on the making of the film.

About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 6 Comments

  1. Pingback My TIFF 2011 Schedule « Pretty Clever Films

  2. - September 21, 2011
      -   Reply

    Great review Brandy – thanks for articulating the essence of our & your post-film discussion – spot on!

  3. - September 30, 2011
      -   Reply

    Many thanks for your thoughtful review. But I’d like to add my two cents about one comment:

    “The Last Dogs of Winter also never addresses the question of why or for what the dogs are worth saving. It takes as a fact in evidence that they are worth saving and never addresses the issue of work. Brian Ladoon works very hard to maintain the integrity of the gene pool of Canadian Eskimo dogs, but they remain purposeless in the contemporary society.”

    With respect, the film does address this question. In fact it is the most central question in the whole thing. The fact that there is no conclusive answer is not evidence the question has not been considered. Ladoon is on a crusade that I can only describe as Quixotic. As you point out, his trajectory is exactly analogous to his dogs.

    Currently, there is no commercially viable place in this world for either of them. Is that a reason to abandon these animals to extinction? Or to lead a more ‘normal’ life? I think not. The dogs are worth saving, if for no other reason than loyalty for all they have done for mankind over eons. I wanted this film to be a subtle meditation on our propensity as a species to measure other animals by their utility, and to use and discard them carelessly. For all that Ladoon is a controversial character, and perhaps engaged in a ‘pointless’ quest, he is genuinely heroic; being one of only a handful of people who have stuck by these extraordinary beasts, at the cost of continuing personal sacrifice.

    Best wishes,

    Costa Botes

    • - September 30, 2011
        -   Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to stop by and add your comments. Two cents are always welcome at Pretty Clever Films, especially from the filmmaker!

      There really are no excuses for poor clarity, but in my defense I was caught up in attending TIFF and reviewing the films I saw when I wrote about The Last Dogs of Winter. Since the day I published my review, I’ve spent a great deal of time both thinking about your film and discussing it with others, a sure sign of a provocative documentary. One of my great friends is in the planning stages of producing a doc about dogs in the Northwest Territories, and The Last Dogs of Winter has been an invaluable resource in thinking about how to handle the subject both as a film and as a cultural issue. I know that she would love to talk to you further about your experience in making the film and your thoughts on the topic.

      First, I want to clarify that I did not in any way mean that these dogs are not “worth” saving. Every living beast deserves the dignity of sustained existence. Canadian Eskimo Dogs are magnificent creatures and I agree with you that they are owed honor, most certainly within Canada, for the contribution that they made to the growth and development of this country and its rich culture.. Personally, trumping even movies, dogs are the dearest subject to my heart. Being the leader of my own dog pack, I take their health and well being very seriously. My personal investment in this subject is what ultimately led to the slightly unsettled feeling I had after watching the film.

      Quixotic is the perfect word to describe Brian Ladoon and his self-appointed mission. I applaud his effort, and his successes. I also would categorically disagree with anyone who described his treatment of these dogs as “cruel.” But after watching the film, I was left unsettled by the thought of these dogs living a life on a chain, deprived of their genetically driven pack life, and unable to fulfil a purpose. And by purpose I don’t necessarily mean a human-centric one, though historically that was the job assigned to these dogs. They were working dogs, and any canine behaviorist will tell you that a working dog is happiest when it’s working. And dogs, more than any other species, seem designed to co-exist, adapt, and live fruitful lives in tandem with human beings. What I fervently wished for these dogs, and Brian Ladoon’s breeding program, is a new role within our contemporary culture that is just as fulfilling for both human and dog as their ancestors occupied. That’s the greatest honor that I can think of for them. That said, I understand the very real pressures of lack of resources, land, staff, and well cash, that Brian Ladoon faces everyday.

      In hindsight, with the benefit of reflection, to posit my emotional response as a failure of the film is erroneous and terribly unfair. Rather, my emotional investment is a testament to a story well told via the medium of documentary film. In my discussion of the film with friends, the point was made that often the personality required to build a business from the ground up is not the personality required to continue sustained growth after success is achieved. I think there are shades of this argument at play in the Brian Ladoon story as well, and your film does touch on the subject in pondering who will take the reins from Ladoon when he can no longer do this. What I desperately wished for was Phase II of the operation, where we can say success has been achieved in preserving the breed and saving it from extinction and now these dogs will… But, of course, this is the kind of resolution that Hollywood gives us in movies but that we rarely have in documentaries.

      Again, thank you so much for taking the time to read my review and post some very thoughtful comments. You have bestowed the favor that a critic rarely gets (and probably doesn’t deserve) – the opportunity to clarify her thoughts. I have concluded every discussion I’ve had about The Last Dogs of Winter with the unqualified recommendation that one should see it if possible. If you have any updates on screening and availability, please do let me know and I will post that information for my readers.

      Thanks,

      Brandy (Pretty Clever Film Gal)

  4. - September 30, 2011
      -   Reply

    Oh thanks Brandy. I hope I didn’t give the impression I was unhappy with your review. Quite the contrary. I’ve been a film critic myself and that gives me some useful perspective as a film maker. I’m just happy you’ve put so much thought and consideration into writing about this movie. Much appreciated.

    Re all your secondary comments in reply, I agree with absolutely everything you say. I wish there were some more tangible evidence of future good news the movie could have ended on. But that’s life. However, I did try to suggest there were lots of people who love these dogs, and so it’s not hopeless. Maybe not through Brian, but perhaps through Caleb, or others like him. Caleb is in fact working now on setting up some kind of volunteer programme that will enable interested people to come to Churchill and learn how to run sled dogs. I believe it could be a very viable enterprise, and I hope be good for dogs and people alike.

    Yes, there’s a measure of sadness there, but perhaps more melancholy at what has passed, and mixed feelings about the present; I feel a lot more optimism now that reasonable numbers of dogs can be maintained, and that they can have a more active life, even as working dogs. This is happening amongst pockets of Inuit in the North. I think that’s where the recovery really needs to happen. With the people who bred the dogs in the first place. Perhaps your friend will discover this in the course of making her own film. It’s a big topic, actually. My film is about passion and perseverance, with a focus on mainly one guy. There are lots of other points of view, characters, and rich social history as well.

    Happy to correspond with your mate. Email is cosbo(AT)paradise.net.nz

    Best regards,

    Costa

    • - October 2, 2011
        -   Reply

      No offense was taken at all. I’m happy to engage in spirited conversation about film, and it’s an honor to get to do so with the actual filmmaker. I had a discussion elsewhere on the blog about what I learned in terms of my own critical skills and shortcomings when writing about contemporary films and writing on deadline. Being spurred to clarify my thoughts with the benefit of passed time and further thinking is fantastic and I appreciate the opportunity.

      I’m happy to hear that Caleb has the opportunity to take further steps with Brian’s breeding program. I know the best laid plans often go sideways when confronted with the very real problems of finite resources, time, energy, etc. I also know many, many people do care about these dogs and it’s wonderful to take steps to engage that very energized community.

      I’ll pass along your contact info to my friend. I’m sure you’ll hear from her soon.

      Many thanks,

      Brandy

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