The question that Matthew Salleh‘s documentary We Don’t Deserve Dogs is ostensibly trying to answer is what exactly we did to deserve all that unconditional love from our four-legged friends. But much like we can’t really get a straight answer from our furry companions—and I’ve tried—We Don’t Deserve Dogs never actually comes to a conclusion, either, and it’s a much more interesting film for it. Salleh’s camera frames wide-ranging human stories from every corner of the globe through the lens of the dogs who pass no judgment on them, giving us the choice to see a different perspective with an equally impartial eye.
We Don’t Deserve Dogs hops from country to country, stopping to find stories of local dogs that range from heartwarming, to inspiring, to devastating, to the charmingly mundane. All in all, the doc visits 11 countries—Chile, Uganda, Peru, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Finland, Romania, Vietnam, Nepal, and Scotland—and the sheer variety of tales told makes you feel every step of the journey. I went into We Don’t Deserve Dogs expecting it to be emotional, but I didn’t predict the emotional whiplash.
For example: The first dog we meet is Chino, an absolute unit who wanders the streets of Chile without an owner, simply dropping in from time to time to see different humans who all know him by a different name. It’s an uplifting story about solitude and perseverance—“[Chino] is a smart, living being. And a brave one,” says one local, correctly—from a subject who can’t say a word. It also bleeds directly into the next segment, set in Uganda, where formerly enslaved child soldiers have been given dog companions to help with their trauma, as well as minimize the stigma surrounding their past. It’s jaw-droppingly brutal, and the footage Salleh captures is crushing in its tenderness. As a woman describes the horrific murders of all her siblings, her dog drapes his legs over her legs in a gesture that’s impossible to describe as anything other than protective.
What’s equally as interesting as the footage is the way it’s presented. As the film moves from one country to another, it doesn’t provide location cards or nameplates. You simply drift into, say, Peru to attend an extravagant birthday party for a white puff-ball named Dulce, or Turkey to meet a dog-walker who once had a pup die in his arms, and then without warning, you land in the next locale. It’s so subtle you almost don’t realize it simulates the way a dog doesn’t really understand its surroundings, it simply reacts to the stimulus in front of it.
The effect can be jarring, but never more so than in what I expect to be the film’s most debated segment, which follows a married couple of butchers in Vietnam who include dog meat in their stalls. The footage is a shock to the senses, obviously, but it’s presented without a hint of judgment or opinion, an unflinching look at a part of the world where this is not shocking. In the only instance in the film where the editing feels very purposeful, we move straight from Vietnam to a look at Nepal’s Kukur Tihar festival, a day for venerating the sacred relationship between human and dog.
These separate pieces come together to drive home the overall effect of We Don’t Deserve Dogs, which is a powerful one that lingered with me long after the credits. It’s more than a chance to sit alongside some cute pups for a while, as appealing as that sounds. (And make no mistake, all pups included are freaking cute pups.) We Don’t Deserve Dogs doesn’t ever discover what we did to receive a dog’s unconditional love, but it does make you believe in its ability to break down barriers.