THE CHAMPIONS is the powerful story of the brave individuals who rescued, rehabilitated, and adopted the pit bulls from NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s violent dog-fighting ring. Despite tremendous pressure from animal welfare organizations to euthanize these animals, a handful of men and women stepped in to give the dogs a second chance. With her inspiring documentary, first time filmmaker Darcy Dennett proves the power of resilience and addresses a variety of important issues, including the unfair stigma surrounding this misunderstood breed, the exploitation of animals for the sake of entertainment, and the way society is too quick to forgive its star athletes.
Please tell us about THE CHAMPIONS in your own words. As the writer/director, why did you choose this specific topic for your first film?
Darcy Dennett: 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.
In a sense, I didn’t choose the topic—the topic chose me. From 2007-2009 I was the producer of National Geographic’s 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.
Did you come to the project with your personal convictions about animal rights already in place? Or did they develop while you worked on the film and got to know the people, organizations and dogs involved?
Darcy Dennett: I’ve always had strong opinions about kindness to animals, but in making the film, my convictions were definitely strengthened. When the dogs first arrived at the sanctuary, they were extremely guarded around people. But as time passed in the care of Best Friends, it was amazing to watch them learn to trust humans, something I wasn’t sure was even possible, given their traumatic background. It’s so inspiring, what dogs are capable of. I think we tend to underestimate them.
My convictions about animal welfare in general have also evolved through my exposure to various organizations, in particular Best Friends, with whom I’ve worked so closely over such a long period of time. One of the things I love about Best Friends is their philosophy that each and every life counts. And I’ve also learned an extraordinary amount through watching their trainers work with dogs using “positive reinforcement training,” a reward-based training that builds strong bonds of trust between trainer and animal. It’s a philosophy I’ve used with my own pets, and it has helped me to have wonderfully rich and satisfying relationships with my dog and two cats.
The discovery of these dogs’ plight was a huge news story eight years ago. Once you got involved, what surprised you the most?
Darcy Dennett: We followed the story from the moment the dogs first arrived at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. At the time, PETA and The Humane Society thought these dogs should be euthanized and, like many, I imagined that pit bulls rescued from a dogfighting ring would be scary, dangerous, and aggressive.
But from the moment we started following the dogs as they settled into the sanctuary, it quickly became clear that for the most part, they were frightened, abused, under-socialized dogs who were completely misunderstood and deserved a second chance. The thing that probably surprised me the most was seeing how incredibly friendly two particular dogs—named Georgia and Lucas—were with people, despite the fact it is thought they were both champion fighters.
This film is featured in the inaugural edition of Compassion, Justice and Animal Rights. Since we announced the program, the social response has been overwhelming. What do you hope to gain from this prominent platform?
Darcy Dennett: It’s such a pleasure to be invited to screen our film in the inaugural edition of the Festival’s Compassion, Justice and Animal Rights program. I am incredibly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive response and support from the programming team and the Festival. We really couldn’t ask for a better world premiere. The festival is [days] away and already the film has been written up in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, Indiewire and more.
I’m so grateful to Zelda Penzel and the Hamptons International Film Festival for creating this special program and for awarding THE CHAMPIONS the “Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award.” The title of the award says it all—exactly what my goal was in making this movie. It is my hope that this new program will not only help films like ours succeed so we can change hearts and minds, but that the program will also inspire and encourage other filmmakers.
Darcy Dennett: There are two organizations featured in the film. The organization featured most heavily is Best Friends Animal Society. They took the hardest cases, and my work with them several years ago is really what inspired the film. A national organization, their goal is to “Save Them All.” Nearly 4 million dogs and cats are killed in America every year and Best Friends is working to bring that number down to zero. They are on the verge of opening up a sanctuary here in New York City, and nothing would make me happier than if individuals wanted to help support their cause by donating here.
The other organization we had the pleasure of featuring is BADRAP, a pit bull rescue organization based in San Francisco, founded by Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer. Tim and Donna are both wonderful. They also took Vick dogs, and are doing incredibly good work to change public perception about pit bulls as well as getting them adopted into loving homes in the Bay Area. You can learn more about their work here.
Now that your feature film debut is behind you, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Darcy Dennett: In my humble opinion as a first-time filmmaker, there are so many challenges inherent in documentary filmmaking that I cannot imagine embarking upon making an independent film unless you simply cannot walk away from the story. There are going to be many, many hurdles to overcome, so choose a topic that you believe deeply in, and make sure you tell the story that you want to tell, that you get your personal message across.
What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from the stories in the film?
Darcy Dennett: What I would like HIFF audiences to take away from the film is a more informed point of view about pit bulls and a richer understanding of what the relationships with the animals in their own lives might look and feel like.
What are you most looking forward to at HIFF 2015?
Darcy Dennett: I’m looking forward to so many things, but I think what I’m most looking forward to is seeing Cherry, one of the dogs who stars in the film, on the red carpet and witnessing the joy I know people feel when they get an opportunity to meet him.
Darcy Dennett produced a segment in Nigeria for Oprah’s landmark series Belief in 2013. She was the series producer of National Geographic’s Dogtown, directed episodes of Our America With Lisa Ling, and produced a multi-million dollar advertising campaign for HSBC with some of National Geographic’s best photographers, around the world. Darcy studied film at Wesleyan, lives in NYC, and has traveled to over 50 countries.