Woof (Sun Dogs)

Before beginning this review, a tip of the hat to sun dogs, aka parhelia, those common bright circular spots on a solar halo. Sun dogs are “an atmospheric optical phenomenon primarily associated with the reflection or refraction of sunlight by small ice crystals making up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds.”

Also, a little love for the Arizona Sundogs in the Central Hockey League and for a few favorite dog movies: snow dogs, rain dogs, desert dogs, moon dogs, straw dogs, stray dogs, reservoir dogs, dish dogs, lawn dogs, dead dogs, rabid dogs, chilly dogs, sleeping dogs, miracle dogs, road dogs, old dogs, dealing dogs, tap dogs, angry dogs, war dogs, catwalk dogs, deck dogs, top dogs, lost dogs, trinity dogs, urinoir dogs, bad dogs, barking dogs, fence dogs, devil dogs, gift dogs, good dogs, hot dogs, performing dogs, sea dogs, restricted dogs, society dogs, trained dogs, tokyo dogs, training dogs, wild dogs, zombie dogs, prairie dogs, and a dog’s dog.

And to note that Kingston is overrun with dogs. Dogs of all colors but of similar size. Dogs tough in body and in spirit; wary dogs, but not as wary as the cats; and hungry without exception. No other Caribbean island that I know of, and that includes the DR, has such a wealth of stray dogs. I don’t remember seeing any at all on Trinidad or Barbados. There might be a thesis for someone in this.

So. Sun Dogs. A documentary filmed in Jamaica, Minnesota, and Scotland. Stray dogs and huskies. Scenery. Socially responsible slum scenes. More scenery. Talking heads. Easy-listening and upbeat get-the-juices-flowing we’re-having-fun it’s-sunny-and-warm-down-here trust-what-you’re watching Jamaican music. Accents. When is the last time you heard white folks talkin with heavy Jamaican accents? It’s fun. More scenery. 90 minutes.

First time out for the director of the film and for the director of photography. The director of photography did a swell job.

About cynical movie reviews: The world is full of cynicism. It leaks into our lives. We can’t avoid it. The demands of the 24/7 newscycle breed it, for example. In the world of cinema, a director starts out to make a movie – something caring and responsible, but also fun – a movie about saving a few strays, canine and human – a movie that might give Jamaica a little boost that it can surely use – and invariably some sorehead comes along and eyeballs the whole project and all the good work that it entails, and treats it as if it were some hack job with a (barely) hidden personal commercial agenda. If this sort of thing disturbs you as much as it does me, read no farther. Or further.

But again, that beginning: Jamaica. Lush. A paradise. Happy tourists. But lots of poor Jamaicans. One of the poorest countries in the world. Wouldn’t it be cool to gather up some stray dogs from the slums of Kingston and train them as sled dogs?

There is a line between silly/stupid/entertaining and silly/stupid/toxic. Which side of that line are we on here? Assorted talking heads ensue, alternately dour and avuncular. “No harm done, no humans or animals injured during the making of this documentary. You will be entertained.” Or, “Brudda, if you want a movie about the social ills of Jamaica, don’t queue up a movie about dog sleds on wheels.”

Or is it that the first ten minutes of this movie are just utterly wrong? Is the director tone deaf? Is she oblivious to the dissonance created by juxtaposing a bunch of comfortable white guys talking about a crazy-but-fun idea with the sights and sounds of a nation of seriously freeped-up black Jamaicans? Saving a few strays who are left to represent the poor of the island by doing a little cart-pulling? Is this film like a movie made in a veteran’s hospital, forgetting the amputees and brain-damaged patients while focusing on the pigeon-racing project out back? Is it like working for PETA in the middle of a holocaust? That is, is this a priority thing? Not to say that you can’t collect stamps during a genocide, but if you want to make a philately documentary, please leave the death camps out of it.

Whoa. Let’s not go off the deep end here. Instead, let’s just ignore the intro and restart 10 minutes in.

But, no. At 20 minutes, we’re back into it. The dogs go to school. Segue to problems with the education of children in Jamaica. Talking heads. But, hey, a lot of great closeups and, as mentioned above, I realize that I can’t remember ever hearing heavy in-country Jamaican accents falling from Caucasian lips. It’s like grandma acting rasta. Different. And horseback riding. Diverting. So just watch the damn movie and worry about the poor later? Take the ride? Dog interest, musher training, social conditions on the island, sledding as sport, Carribean history. A Jamaican pu pu platter of subjects.

Sigh. I paused the movie to take a minute to find out who is who or whom here and why I should care, and why instead of righting social wrongs these old white guys are fooling around with dog sleds on wheels. In other words, sadly, I decided to follow the money.

Some years ago, businessman Danny Melville (a guy with a John McCain vibe, I thought), the first old white guy to speak in the movie, tripped over a metal frame with wheels in a fabrication shop in Edmonton, Canada, while shopping for dune buggies. An employee in the shop told him that the thing was a snowless dog sled. Warm-weather dog sledding is picking up around the world because of global warming – rig racing, canicross, dog scootering, bikejoring – an ecological silver lining. Refer to my reviw of Out of Balance for more good news along these lines.

Anyway, the notion of a Jamaican dog sled team came to Melville on the spot, as he tells it. With the success and noteriety of the Jamaican bobsled team in mind (Cool Runnings, the Calgary Olympics), Melville swung into action. We see him for the first time in Sun Dogs at the beginning of the movie, his idea implemented, dogcarts in action. Following that quick, upbeat, life-is-good montage of beautiful scenery and happy poverty-stricken island inhabitants that I noted, with a rousing Jamaican beat urging us to jump up and dance, Melville speaks with great earnestness about this crazy sled-dog idea of his, and then Jimmy Buffet pops up to endorse him, with a quick cut to Buffett performing in front of a crowd of ten thousand or so, to remind us that this isn’t some washed-up bum we’re listening to, so pay attention. Then quick shots of endearing mutts in harness, with folks cheering them along in some unknown sunny context, a woman getting her shirt autographed by Buffet, dog urinating on tourist, so forth. Melville, sitting by the dog pens in a casual open-necked shirt, a personable sincere old duffer with a neat white beard, tells us that his plans include touring dog teams, sled racing, and promoting Jamaica to the hilt. “Sustainable” teams, that is, which means that they’re to pay their own way, mutts or not.

Melville tells us that he also had the idea of making a movie about the dogs, the day after he had the idea of starting the sled dog project – a feature-length cartoon, maybe, with Jamaican mutts racing against Russian Mafia huskies, something for Disney Pixar to implement. That would work! Samples of such a cartoon are cut in throughout Sun Dogs. Behind Melville in the frame, folks mill about in a country setting. Jamaica must project itself into the world, the dog sleds will help, so forth, Melville tells us. He’s a loquacious guy.

Brand Jamaica. 2.5 million visitors a year. More shots of happy people, turquoise water. But then serious talk by the government’s national image-and-identity advisor: the country and the people don’t benefit from the tourist proceeds; annual revenues are funneled into the pockets of others, others who remain unnamed by the advisor onscreen; we presume that offshore leisure-based corporations and the upper-tier Jamaican rich figure into this. Next a serious word from the executive director of Jamaicans for Justice, Dr. Carolyn Gomes. “We’re the best at what we do, be it criminality or murder.” Deadpan. Next a serious word from a member of the bobsled team. Then serious words from Wilmot Perkins, talk-show host and perhaps the strongest public voice regarding the dysfunctional understanding, behavior, and social problems between races on the island. Gist: Jamaicans are bright, energetic, full of promise, but led astray. Shots of bright, energetic, but glowering poor citizens in the slums. Then all of this again, with similar but different words. Melville deplores the situation along with the rest. The music has become exceedingly somber by now. Somber. Then Melville explains that the dog sled project is just another zany idea of his, so that people will shake their heads and say Jamaica! (Ok, this makes no sense, but the man is just riffing.) And people will say, Why didn’t I think of that! (That is, “Melville has scored another win.”) Now the music picks up again. Jamaica! And with the music appears a shot of the sign at the entrance to Melville’s Chukka Cove. Adventure Tours. Experience the Real Jamaica!

Danny Melville’s dad bought Tropical Battery back when Jamaica was protected from U.S. companies by high tariffs. The company manufactured vehicle batteries and enjoyed a monopoly on the island. When the tariffs began to be removed, the Melvilles left the island, with only Danny remaining to run the business, which in due course went downhill as the competition moved in. Melville also purchased 50 acres of undeveloped land in St. Ann in the early 80s and subsequently started an equestrian center at Chukka Cove. He hoped to lure dressage and polo enthusiasts away from Argentina and the UK, but failed. At this point he contacted his sons, away at school in Florida, and told them that he could sell everything or they could come back and help him try to save the businesses. Andrew and Mark returned to the island and joined the company.

Long story short: the battery company switched from manufacture to import and bounced back, and the family got into the soft adventure business. If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you’re familiar with soft adventures. You get a great price on the cruise itself, but hopefully you’ve factored additional costs into your vacation budget, because at each port you’re confronted with a variety of extra fun activities, each at a sometimes-fancy price. If you’ve tubed or taken a canopy tour or rode a horse on Jamaica or in the Dominican or Belize or various other locations, there’s a good chance you’ve paid the Melvilles something for the privilege. Expansion. Gaming machines. Evolving relationships with cruise lines. 500 or so horses. 500 or so employees. Over a billion a year in revenues from a number of interlocking companies shared with long-time business partners, and that’s not counting the auto-supply business.

See, the thing is, I’m sitting here remembering the ruined wreck of a home at the edge of the Yaque river where it curls through Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Santiago is the DR’s second-largest city. On December 11 in the early morning, as hurricane Olga brushed the island, Tavera dam workers upriver decided to open all six floodgates, fearing a dam failure that could kill thousands in Santiago. This sent 1.6 million gallons of water/second into the river.The lives of the family of ten living in the house that I visited were snuffed out by the water roaring downstream in the dead of night. And the members of that family weren’t the only casualties. For months after that night, folks have come to the edge of the cliff above, standing along Av. Mirador del Yaque to look down on the wreckage below. For many of the poor, it was no more than luck that they lived far enough from the river’s edge to escape drowning. This was the second time in the year that this happened. I spoke to more than one upper-class resident of Santiago who, privately of course, were not sorry to see the mostly ramshackle buildings along the river washed away, along with the poor living in them.

If a movie, documentary or otherwise, wants to add footage meant to raise the consciousness of viewers about the plight of so many in the Caribbean, whether the film be documentary or drama or cartoon or science-fiction flick about life on Venus, I for one will cut it some slack. I will not say “Ok, I get it. Move on.” However, if the footage is doing no more than wrapping one more big-business vacuum cleaner for middle-class dollars in a flag of righteousness, then burn the film.

I found plenty to savor in Sun Dogs: young men conversing quietly in a lilting Jamaican English that almost required subtitles; the enlistment of Newton, a poor young man living in a tin shack, to be a musher; Newton applying for a passport; Newton visiting Twig, Minnesota in the winter, to see snow for the first time and to learn about real dog sleds and sledding; Newton eating a fig newton; Jamaican  music in the snowy north; Newton learning to drive and later taking his boss’ car without permission, totaling it, and being banished, sent back to sit on the plank in front of his shack; the enlistment of Devon Anderson, then, to train as Jamaica’s first musher, getting the dog sled 101 crash course from sledding experts from Twig; serious Scots commenting seriously on Anderson, over to Scotland from his island to theirs to compete in his first sled race and to win the “Came the Farthest” prize; Anderson at the end of his race exhausted with one dog from his team out of harness and on the sled tucked into an emergency dog bag; first class photography, great color, great closeups; driving around Jamaica on the wrong side of the road; a call to renowned dog sled trainer Alan Stewart in Scotland;  and, of course, the recruitment and training of the dogs. Several dogs picked out at the pound. The dogs’ names appear onscreen in big yellow letters – so that you can remember to ask for them when you come down? Scenes of the dogs being introduced to the dogcarts and other wheeled conveyances that they will pull. Benji the scared hound. The biggest dog, who doesn’t relate to the other dogs. I remember hearing once that if a dog doesn’t learn social skills early, it can’t learn them later. Guess that doesn’t apply to this big dog, because apparently he does, after first gnawing one or two of his mates.

The last movie that I reviewed as a Spout Maven was Africa Unite, a Palm Pictures documentary in which the Marley family journeys from Jamaica to Africa in search of peace and/or treasure. Sun Dogs is also a Palm Pictures documentary, wherein stray dogs replace the Marleys but remain in Kingston. Chris Blackwell, the founder and head of Palm Pictures, and David Koh, head of acquisitions and production, negotiated the financial terms of the movie with Andrea Stewart and Danny Melville. Stewart produced as well as directed. Blackwell, Koh, Leigh Ingleby, and Melville were the executive producers (i.e., they put up the money). Palm Pictures nailed down all worldwide rights to the movie. The rumor is that the third film in this Jamaican documentary trilogy, nearing completion, is Spawn of Love, about the homeless illegitimate children fathered by rich white men vacationing at island resorts and sneaking away from their spouses at night for a few moments of forbidden love. Sign me up for the trifecta!

Blackwell also founded Island Records back in 1960 (he’s 71) and signed up an unknown Bob Marley, earning a reputation as the man responsible for the popularity of reggae. I didn’t deal with the question of personal financial gain in the case of the Marleys and Africa Unite, although some other reviewers did. At the time, I was more interested in the dynamics of holding a conference meant to be liberal and democratic in an illiberal country. If I had examined the financial aspects of Africa Unite and the movie’s effect on future iterations of the event, I might have mentioned that after the first edition of it in Addis Ababa, in October, a Ghanaian delegation came to Jamaica to discuss business opportunities between the two countries. Alexander Melville attended the talks and the second Africa Unite was held in Ghana four months later. However, I’m not aware of any other particular connections between Melville and Blackwell, which might argue for taking Sun Dogs as a fun movie and letting it go at that.

Danny Melville started Chukka Caribbean Adventures in 1983.  It’s now the largest land-based nature adventure tour provider in the region, offering more than thirty tours in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Belize, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The business sells more than a quarter of a million adventure tours to cruise and hotel guests every year, including canopy tours over the jungle, mountain-to-sea cycling, river kayaking, a horseback ride and swim, and a Bob Marley retrospective bus trip. Plus, of course, the Jamaica dog sled Experience. “With a commitment to deliver the highest quality tours with well-trained guides and stringent safety standards, Chukka takes pride in showcasing the natural beauty of the Caribbean through unique and sensational experiences and providing opportunities for local residents and businesses.” (chukkacaribbean.com)

Chukka Cove, where it all started, caters to horse lovers who stay on the estate’s landscaped grounds, near the stables. There are six two-bedroom villas, each suitable for four guests, each with a veranda, plank floors, and the feel of Old-Country gentry. Meals are prepared for you on-site. Nickering, and presumably barking, can be heard through open bedroom windows in the moonlight.

The Melvilles are businessmen and make no bones about the fact. When Danny had the sleddog idea, he approached the thing as a money-making proposition from the start and is clear about that throughout the film. “It’s good business,” he says. (N.b., I’m paraphrasing these quotes from memory and notes.) “We’ve got an unexploited brand.  If we can be successful, like the Jamaican bobsled team, the tourists will become ambassadors for us.” (Here in the movie a quick clip of the bobsled team, stars of the 1988 Calgary Olympics.) “You know, you have to believe in it and dive into it wholeheartedly. Tourists will go home and say, ‘I went dog sledding in Jamaica!’ Of course I hope to make a profit: the Jamaica Dog Sled Experience. Our dogs come from the local pound – because, you know, if Jamaica didn’t have the image of being crime-ridden, violent, and poor, it would fly. So, dog sleds pulled by strays, after they’ve been neutered and vaccinated for rabies, that’s the good news. Listen, after Devon’s first race, we were in the Indian newspaper. We were in the Australian newspaper.”

Tourists trot past on Melville horses.

Guests first receive an orientation on sled-dog racing and how the Jamaican team was formed. They also get a lecture on the stray situation in Jamaica. (A percentage of the tour fee goes to the JSPCA.) Finally, visitors get to meet, hug and pet the dogs and learn their personal stories before receiving instruction on mushing technique and heading out on the three-kilometer trail around Chukka Cove Farm.

“This is going to help the dogs because you’ll soon have everybody wanting to get a dog to train them to pull a sled or cart,” says musher Anderson, standing with dogs milling around his ankles. “And eventually, we’ll get rid of the stray dogs on the street.” 20 down and 35,000 to go.

“The Jamaica Dog Sled Encounter at Chukka Caribbean Adventures, home to the only dog sled team and dog sled tours in the Caribbean, is offering children between 6 and 12 years a complimentary Jamaica Dog sled Encounter, with one child free per paying adult. The tour includes a visit to Dunn’s River Falls, and to Island Village for shopping, plus complimentary lunch at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.”

Bottom line on the movie, if not the tour: If you’re more interested in the dogs in particular, or the mushers learning about and training with the dogs, or social and economic conditions on the island, or the physical aspects of the island itself, or the sport of dog sledding, or Caribbean history in general, to the exclusion of interest in the other elements of the movie, then you will not get much of what you crave and will probably feel impatient, dissatisfied, and that your time has been misspent. On the other hand, if your interest runs to the conception, inception, nuture, and support of a fledgling business, then the dogs, mushers, and scenery provide a little spice, or spoonfuls of sugar, to the business; that is, as aids in getting you to hear, learn, and internalize the root message, or hook. Stewart might have been making her first feature-length film, but her backers knew exactly what they wanted and what they needed from the film and there is no doubt that they vetted her work every step of the way to make sure that they got what they wanted. A little local color; a story line that takes you out behind your resort hotel room and not to the Iditarod; a little upbeat music; a break from the intensity of Rick Steves; a story arc of “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Come down and ride on one,” not “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Compete and win/lose.”

I thought about calling the director about this movie and asking her where her head was at when she made it, and how much “input” she got from  Melville and Blackwell and Koh, and Leigh Ingleby (audio-visual interests and arts funding), but I didn’t because I’m conflict-shy and a question like that might really piss her off. Instead, I called Dr. Gomes at Jamaicans For Justice. She impressed me in the movie and I felt that I could trust her answers. I missed her twice at her office but she was kind enough to return my calls. After a few introductory niceties, I asked her if she had seen Sun Dogs. She had. I told her that I was calling with one question in mind, namely, that although the film raised some questions about social justice and poverty in Jamaica, it struck me more simply as a commercial for one more “Caribbean adventure” from a large leisure company, an adventure which, so far as I could tell at present, hasn’t materially aided the poor of the country. So, Were the sun dogs in fact, in her view, of some use as a pro-social force on the island? It took a while for me to get all that out. She listened in silence and her reply, as it struck me, was stony. She said that she had consented to be interviewed for the film and that she had answered the questions put to her to the best of her ability. Period. No love shown by Dr. Gomes for the sun dogs.

So come on down for a ride ($100 adults, $76 children, or $352 plus tax for a family of four if you don’t find a coupon to use in advance, or buy a package of adventures). The dogs pull in, say, $1000 an hour, ten hours a day, 350 days a year, two sites. A modest $7 mil a year. Overhead costs: kibble. An unknown percentage of the net returned to the JSPCA, which from the looks of it hasn’t been spending it on glitz at the pound. The ride is a nice addition to the many adventures in many locales that help put the Melville enterprises over the billion-a-year mark.

We can hope that Newton is not still sitting on his plank down at his tin shack.

If you do decide to go on down and stay at Chukka Cove Farm, you’ll know what to expect after watching this movie. The north-central coast of Jamaica. Turquoise ocean. Lush hills. Magnificent waterfalls. Cool mountain rivers. The poor of the island changing your sheets and refilling your wine glass at dinner.

Good. I got all the way through the review without using the word “infomercial.”

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