An Interview with Filmmaker Nancy Schiesari

Canine SoldiersOn Thursday, August 21 at 6:30PM, award-winning filmmaker and University of Texas professor Nancy Schiesari presents a sneak preview of her film-in-progress, Canine Soldiers, which tells the story of military working dogs and their relationships with their soldier handlers. Schiesari will speak about her experience researching and shooting the film, which documents the usage of dogs in the U.S. Army in recent military actions in Afghanistan, and will also screen excerpts. Adam Bennett, Manager of Public Programs at the Blanton, recently sat down with Schiesari to discuss the film.

When did you realize that this idea would translate into subject matter for a film?

I tend not to think in terms of narrative or individuals, but about the ideas behind a film. I learned about military working dogs in 2005 when I was working on Tattooed Under Fire [Schiesari’s most recent documentary] I heard that if a Military working Dog is caught and killed by the insurgency—they’ll have their ear cut off because the serial number of the dog is written there, and this proof can fetch up to $15,000 per dog. So that piqued my interest.

Canine SoldiersBut I was also thinking about how dogs are essential in these wars, in which two out of three American deaths are the result of improvised explosive devices—bombs hidden under the ground. Robots cannot detect them, but a dog can. So here we have another species leading our species through danger, almost like Saint Christopher leading us to safety. So that image of humans being led by another species stayed with me for a long time.

It’s incredibly humbling to think about humans depending on another species—it just shows us that we’re not top dog in everything on the planet, and how much we owe other animals. This is something that the biologists we’ve featured in the film talk about, that humans survived over time because of their cooperation with dogs. That we have evolved with dogs as a companion species over thousands of years brings us to this point where our survival in these wars depends on them.

And then I learned about the strong bond between the dog and the handler, which they need in order to function as a team, and that the bond is based on love and trust: the dog helps the handler because he or she wants to, they want to please the handler. So handlers have to keep this bond of love alive in a situation which is surrounded by death and danger, and where everybody else around them has a kill-or-be-killed mentality. The dog handler and the dog have a completely different relationship.

offlimitsWhen I started meeting dog handlers, I was so struck by the way they looked, they had a very different quality about them from regular soldiers. But then I learned that they all had been regular soldiers first. Every handler I talked to had first-hand experience in the infantry in Afghanistan or Iraq, had seen what bombs had done to their friends, and decided to go back and train as dog handlers, because they wanted to save lives. The handlers whole mentality is about saving lives—they have a saint-like quality. I don’t mean to idealize them, but they really have an extraordinary aura. That could be because they have to get into the sensory world of the dog in order to be a good dog handler, so they’re using their intelligence in a different way, outside of the military mindset where you do what you’re told.

That’s so interesting that you could detect that difference between the handlers and the non-handlers, even though these handlers are soldiers and used to serve in that very different role. 

caninesoldiersThey actually still have to carry a gun, and be able to defend themselves and shoot back if they’re in a firefight, so they’re still wearing two hats—handler and soldier.

There are a lot of people who object to dogs going to war. We have a volunteer army, so soldiers have a choice about whether to enlist or not, but dogs are bred to do this or are selected and don’t have a choice. So there’s a question of ethics about including dogs in human violence. The biologist Marc Bekoff talks in the full-length film about this; he’s very opposed to using animals in war.

Why did you make the choice to shoot in 3-D?

About three years ago, I was thinking about different ways to represent a dog’s perspective. So I thought: wouldn’t it be nice to shoot in 3-D to bring the audience into that world, which isn’t eye-level with human perspective but is further down and has a lot more movement. So it’s interesting to create a different sort of movement through space that we experience from a non-human perspective, not your typical point-of-view shot of a 6-foot person looking across a landscape.

I also felt that the war had been represented for the last ten years on television in two-dimensional, very flat images that are khaki- and sand-colored, and perhaps we had become numb to what the war was really like. So I wanted to try 3D to increase realism and the sensory experience of the film.

This event is hosted in conjunction with In the Company of Cats and Dogs, currently on view at the Blanton. For more information, visit our website.

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