Darcy Dennett has worked in photography, film and television for nearly twenty years. “The Champions" is her first documentary. In 2013, Dennett produced a segment in Nigeria for Oprah Winfrey’s landmark international series "Belief," about belief and religion around the world. She has worked for networks including HBO, National Geographic, Discovery, A&E and OWN. She directed, produced and wrote five episodes of "Our America with Lisa Ling." (Press materials)
"The Champions" will premiere at the 2015 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 15.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
DD: On the surface, "The Champions" is a documentary about the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring and the rescue and redemption of over 50 dogs that many wanted killed. But to me, the film is about much more.
It’s about the significance of the relationship humans have with animals and our responsibility to be their voice, as they don’t have the ability to speak for and defend themselves. I purposefully avoided hard-to-stomach imagery of dog-fighting as well as visuals of dogs suffering or in pain so that audiences would not be afraid to come and see the film.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
DD: In a sense, I didn’t choose the topic — it chose me. From 2007 to 2009, I was the producer of National Geographic’s TV series "Dogtown," and during the course of the series, we followed the work of Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. The Vick case broke as we were shooting the second season, and we covered the initial rescue of the dogs. The memory of these dogs never left me, and I continued to follow their lives. I became increasingly aware that there was a powerful story waiting to be told.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
DD: One of the biggest challenges, logistically, was simply filming with dogs rescued from such an extreme situation. We wanted to capture what the dogs were really like in their natural environments, but that’s challenging when some are still not trusting of new people and situations. We built padding into the shooting schedule to give the dogs time to get comfortable with the crew when we first arrived. At first, I’m sure to some of the dogs, the camera and the “boom” we used to record sound might have seemed like weapons. But just like human subjects, when you hang around long enough, they start to get bored and ignore you!
Creatively, the biggest challenge in independent film is that you have the freedom to express your own voice, which is very challenging because it’s a world of infinite, never-ending possibilities. It sometimes feels that the project that you’ve devoted yourself to so fully will never be good enough — that if only you could work a few more hours, days, weeks, months, years it would be that much better. The only limitation is how far you personally want to take it.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
DD: I hope audiences walk away from the film with a more informed point of view about pit bulls and a renewed inspiration for the relationships with the animals in their own lives, as well as the animals we share the planet with. Above all, I hope audiences walk away with a warm and overflowing heart. The story of the resilience of these dogs is meant to be uplifting and inspirational. So far it seems like we’re hitting the mark.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
DD: I believe it’s true that women face roadblocks that men do not, and it’s not unique to our industry.
On the other hand, I’ve never let being a woman hold me back from pursuing what I want, and I’ve also had success using gender to my advantage — many topics I’ve covered as a documentarian have benefited from a woman’s touch. I’m thinking of stories I’ve done about the sex trafficking of underage girls or how women give birth all around the world.
The best advice I could give other female directors is, don’t hold yourself back. Men are not shy about pursuing what they want, sometimes regardless of their lack of experience, and women need to be too. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive! Most of my role models in the industry are women — strong ones. They don’t hold back.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
DD: I get the impression that, from the outside, my life and work probably look pretty glamorous to some. I’ve traveled to over 50 countries and I’ve had some pretty amazing experiences and adventures that I wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world. But what people don’t see behind the scenes are all the early mornings and late nights, the disappointments, the failures and mistakes that are all part of the process.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
DD: Getting an independent documentary funded is incredibly challenging, but obviously a hugely important part of doing the work, because without adequate funding, it’s difficult to impossible to focus on the creative aspects of making a strong film.
Oftentimes, although there are of course exceptions, the quality of the film will be at least somewhat proportional to the budget. In my mind, where there is a will, there’s a way, and you just have to get creative and keep banging your head against the wall until you figure out some kind of solution. Fundraising is the first step in the creative process!
I suggest filmmakers partner with organizations they feel their vision is aligned with to help get the film made. As a director, it’s critical to maintain creative control over your film because this is your baby, but depending upon your topic, more often than not, there are probably many like-minded individuals and organizations you can partner with to help support you in realizing your vision.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
DD: One of my favorite documentaries directed by a woman is "The Crash Reel" by Lucy Walker. She’s so talented, and I love her style. Not only is that film beautifully crafted, but it’s such a fascinating and incredible story that’s so well-told. She has such a great touch.