A busy street in Kolkata buzzes with several scooters zipping back and forth on their daily commutes. What catches the eye, however, is a puppy, seeking direction, clearly terrified. But the puppy, injured and in pain, starts to cross the road, inch by inch, with no vehicles slowing down and no human bending to help. Does the terrified little one make it? This is one of the scenes in Pariah Dog, a film by Jesse Alk and his team.
Pariah Dog is not your traditional documentary, though some may categorise it as one. There’s no over-explaining and that’s what filmmaker New York-based Jesse Alk envisioned for film from the initial stages. Jesse comes from a unique breed of filmmakers which has helped shape his current filmmaking philosophy which he pegs as “experiential.”
The film follows three people in Kolkata who share their hopes and dreams for native dogs, often facing ostracism or potential violence while pursuing their mission. While the story is centred on Kolkata, one would still see pan-India references; the local protests against the native dog killings in Kerala being one.
Seeing dogs pretty much everywhere struck a chord with Jesse who frequents India. The idea to do a film took root then and there; seeing it from the perspective as a visitor was one thing but approaching it as a filmmaker was something else. “These dogs have their little parallel society alongside humans, connected with ideas of ‘unseen’ or ‘ubiquitous.’ … I knew what I wanted to do was a visual sensory thing of showing the animals with these people in this city. The intention didn’t include explaining any history. I try to get microscopic if possible.”
Copious amounts of research went into the pre-production for Pariah Dog, including countless conversations with many people in the native dog awareness communities. “There’s not a lot of context in the film intentionally, but I had to know all that context. I met with a lot of great people and because of those conversations, my understanding of the position of native dogs changed over time after seeing the ecosystems in which they live and how they relate to the city. As a Westerner, we can think ‘oh my goodness, all these dogs!’ and it takes a minute to understand that these aren’t stray dogs, they’re native Indian dogs.”
As Jesse started his filming, his executive producer and fellow filmmaker Aditi Sircar (who’s known for directing The Kantha Stitch Of Bengal) let him stay with her family and even helped expand the team. “I came with this intention of staying six months and making this film just about the dogs and it all expanded as I met the human people and got more involved in their stories.”
For Jesse, the best part of bringing the film to life was the collaboration of the different energies behind Pariah Dog, while adding, “I shot the film myself and I edited the film myself, but I edited the film in Kolkata with the inputs of the people I was with. Koustav Sinha was my sound recordist while Rajib Kuila was my assistant camera. It was basically the three of us as crew but working as full collaborators. I needed their input very much because we’d bounce the ideas off each other and I needed to decipher everything. The sound was something we really thought about early on; I knew the sound of Kolkata wasn’t something I wanted to recreate in post. We ran microphones everywhere, often running one or two stereo mics at the same time. I did the sound work back here in the United States and Brian Rund was incredibly generous with his time make sure there wasn’t any inauthentic audio.”
The subject matter, being ever-developing and detailed, proved that packing the story into a single film was no small feat. “I could have made several films out of the material we collected. It was pretty difficult; I went through eight different versions of the film. I knew I wanted a poetic feeling of Kolkata and to have as many intimate moments with these human characters as I could. So when I focussed on that, unfortunately what had to go was a lot of dog footage and vignettes – the hardest and final cut.”
With the sensitive subject matter, Jesse experienced moments of conflict – intervention versus documentation. “The most difficult moment is the crippled puppy crossing the road, and I didn’t know what the right answer was. But then you see this kid come pick up the puppy. It looks staged but it definitely wasn’t; the relief I felt was huge.”
At one point Jesse wasn’t sure how Pariah Dog would be received but, in February, when the film showed at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana, it won Best Feature. “Some people found themselves covering their eyes at the more saddening parts, but I left those in intentionally, while the reactions were strongly positive. People connected with the characters; I was surprised people understood the thematics, that the film is about dogs but also about loneliness, making meaning in our lives and deeper existential things.”
Jesse is currently in talks about film distribution with hopes that India as a main audience gets priority viewing.
Jesse Alk: Producer/Director/Cinematographer
Noah Lerner: Co-Producer
Aditi Sircar: Executive Producer
Koustav Sinha: Assistant Director/Sound Recordist/Co-Writer
Rajib Kuila: Assistant Camera
Brian Rund: Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer
Joe Miuccio: Sound Editor
Chad Smith: Colourist
For more information visit pariahdogmovie.com