Veteran Canadian film maker Fern Levitt still isn’t talking about her yet-to-be-seen but already controversial documentary “Sled Dogs,” but she’s got to be relishing the ever-growing attention the film is getting.
Shot on location in Alaska, Colorado, Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia – “Sled Dogs” isn’t set to premier until the Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 3 , but it’s already generating more than its fair share of internet discussion and argument.
One of the hundreds of people commenting beneath the “Sled Dogs” trailer featured on the Whistler Film YouTube page summed well the boat load of free publicity the film has generated since Alaska dog mushers began protesting the movie as a grossly unfair attack on sled-dog sports.
“I like how none of the other trailers for videos that are to be shown have mush (sic) as far as comments or thumbs downs go,” wrote Mandy C.
Fifty, full-length feature films are set to air in Whistler. None are generating close to the buzz of “Sled Dogs,” the trailer of which opens with pretty pictures of the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race but quickly cuts away to dead dogs.
Comments come from both fans and opponents of “The Last Great Race.” Dozens of Iditarod mushers and sled-dog business owners have attacked the film as misleading, and they have been urging their friends and acquaintances to post comments on the You Tube page.
But so, too, activists for animal rights, who have been making the same but opposite appeal to their supporters.
“A new documentary is exposing serious animal welfare problems in the sled dog industry in North America,” the Vancouver (Canada) Humane Society posted on its webpage. “Please view the film’s trailer here and comment. You can express opposition to the tethering of sled dogs and ‘culling’ by gunshot.
“If you are able to attend the Whistler Film Festival, we encourage you to see this film.”
Whistler is a world-famous, British Columbia ski resort about 75 miles north of Vancouver, a metropolitan area home to an estimated 2.4 million people. Whistler is also the location of a gruesome, 2010 sled-dog slaughter.
The dogs were owned by Howling Dogs Tour Whistler Inc., which grew its business in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics only to find itself with too many mouths to feed after Olympic business peaked and faded away. About 100 dogs were shot and buried in a pit.
The Howling Dog story became big news in British Columbia and angered many. Levitt probably couldn’t find any place more sympathetic than Whistler for the premiere of a movie questioning the motives, ethics and behaviors of sled-dog related businesses.
Not all the same
The first person to appear in the “Sled Dogs” trailer is 27-year-old musher Patrick Beall from Sterling, AK, by way of Bettles and Norman, OK. He talks about how difficult the Iditarod.
A former dog handler for Iditarod champs Mitch and Dallas Seavey, Beall was a rookie musher in this year’s race. Levitt’s film crew followed him along the 1,000 mile trail from Willow to Nome. He thought they were all friends until he saw the film’s trailer, which along with the usual pretty shots of Alaska scenery has that footage of dead huskies piled up in a shipping container.
The voice on the video of the dead dogs appears to be that of retired Alaska State Trooper Terrance Shannigan of “Buddy,” the hero dog fame. The video of dead sled dogs is about as opposite as one can get to the beauty of people and dogs on the Iditarod Trail.
“What they did to me, I mean, that should show you the type of people,” Beall says in a video posted on the Iditarod Facebook page. “(They)pretend that they are my friends and buy me pizza, ‘compliments of the Canadian government,’ and laugh about it.”
Then Beall’s one-time friends put him in a film that details sled-dog abuse and questions whether the Iditarod contributes to it.
The Canadian Media Fund contributed about $400,000 toward production of the film. Some mushers have called for an investigation into the funding and questioned whether Levitt misrepresented what she planned to do in order to obtain the funding.
Levitt appears to have been less than fully honest with the Iditarod, which helped her gain access to mushers in Alaska. But she’s pretty blunt about the conclusions reached in the documentary.
“This film comes at a critical moment when the public is waking up to the treatment of animals and demanding change,” a press release for the film said. “The audience will be outraged when they discover the legal abuse of ‘man’s best friend’ under the guise of sport and entertainment. This is a timely documentary and a definitive call for action.”
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Histocially, the Iditarod has weathered these sorts of storms, but this is the biggest blow up since the Humane Society of the United States launched a full-on attack on the race in the early 1990s.
The Iditarod lost major national sponsors that time around, but shifted its attention to a greater emphasis on in-state fundraising and survive.