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“Sled dogs” cleared

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More bad news for Alaska dog mushers trying to refute accusations of abuse suggested by the as-yet little seen documentary “Sled Dogs.”

They had backed Canadian sled-dog businesses complaining to the Canadian Media Fund that film producer Arnie Zipursky and director Fern Levitt behaved unethically in producing the movie that tied for the honor of best documentary at the Whistler Film  Festival earlier this month.

But the Fund, which provided about $400,000 to finance the film, on Thursday announced a “review into the allegations established that the producers ensured that the documentary conformed to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and to all programming standards endorsed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.”

The fund said it recognized the film caused concerns for those in the sled-dog community, but “after examining the application documents, screening the film and interviewing the producers, the CMF found no reason to revoke its funding of this particular project and confirmed that it remains eligible under the CMF’s funding guidelines.”

The screening for the CMF would mark only the second time the film has been viewed by any sort of public or semi-public group.

Despite the lack of visibility – the only announced public airing to date is to be on Canadian TV sometime next year – the trailer for the film and a complaint from an Iditarod musher featured in the trailer has generated plenty of controversy in Alaska and Canada where ministers to parliament have suggested it unfairly puts mushing in a bad light.

Larry Bagnell, an MP from the Yukon Territory, Canada, was among those leading the push to have the CMF review the film.

“I’ve asked the Media Fund to review and see if the money they put out — even though it’s mostly private sector money — if it was put out on false pretences….And if it was, they should consider revoking the funding,” he told the CBC. 

Rookie musher Patrick Beall, 27, said he was misled into participating in the film. A dog-handler for two-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Mitch Seavey, Beall said he was pitched the idea of a film that would highlight his first run with a team of young dogs along the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail from Willow to Nome.

Instead, he said in a Facebook exchange of messages, it appears the footage of his journey along the trail is interspersed with footage of abuses at poorly run kennels owned by people in the sled-dog tour business and the views of a veterinarian who thinks the Iditarod is too hard on dogs.

Levitt, for her part, claims the Beall portion of the film is more nuanced than that, but so few have seen the movie it is hard to say what it is. She is on record, however, as saying Beall is someone who clearly cared about the animals in his team.

He agrees with her on that part.

“Those damn dogs are the best thing to ever happen to me,” he said. “Changed my life.”

“(But) it angers me that Fern says stuff about me like ‘I only want to accept the myth and not the truth,’ he added, “but then goes on to say how she had no agenda in the making of this film. She’s a crazy person. I should have realized it.”

Beall is now living in Colorado and enjoying the skiing there. He said Levitt did reach out to him with an email just before the Whistler screening of the film. He posted his response on his Facebook page.

In part, it said this:

“It’s not your place to speak for me and what I know to be true of the dogs and say that I only understand the myth. You have no idea. Because you have never lived and traveled with them. You have never taken the thoughts of ending your own life away because of those very dogs. You have never survived extreme adversity with those dogs. You have never truly connected to those dogs and their deep rooted northern connection. You have never cried at the beauty of the world and froze your face solid with those dogs.

“You have connected with one dog. That had a shitty previous life. And you attached Slater onto every other sled dog, with the chain you so fervently speak of, no less. To say you are agenda-less is a far cry. And is not the truth. And is bad documenting. Also, and almost more importantly. You can’t speak about truth because you blatantly lied to me. Or probably as you would like to call it, left out the whole truth. Which is what your film will be.”

The controversy over the film doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon.

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3 replies »

  1. Craig,
    I am interested if you contacted Mitch Seavey with his take on this film, since it was at his dog lot where Patrick got indoctrinated into the myths surrounding commercial mushing and also I believe it was his sled dogs that were run on the Iditarod Trail Race and featured in the movie…I also believe there is a scene in the movie where Patrick is carrying five gallon buckets to sled dogs that are living in a Iditarod dog lot on short chains and “housed” in blue barrels during Alaskan winter conditions.

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  2. It seems a bit disingenuous to talk about this ethereal, holier-than-thou bond Patrick managed with his 16 (or so) leased sled dogs, when he and the dogs were apparently totally fine going their separate ways pretty much as soon as he crossed the finish line in Nome.

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