Two paws up for the Dog Film Festival

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A scene from William Wegman's all-Weimaraner The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold - COURTESY DOG FILM FESTIVAL
  • courtesy Dog Film Festival
  • A scene from William Wegman's all-Weimaraner The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold

Let's get the bad news out of the way first: Dogs are not welcome at the Chicago stop of the nationally touring Dog Film Festival.

"Dogs get busy and talk back to the screen," explains Tracie Hotchner, host of NPR's Dog Chat, author of The Dog Bible, and the festival's organizer. "They're not respectful." Also, the Music Box Theatre, which is showing the films, does not allow them.


Hotchner did ask her two Weimaraners, Maisie and Wanda, to help her choose films for the festival, but they weren't interested. "They thought it was boring," Hotchner says. "They're outdoor girls. They're too busy to enjoy movies. So what do you do? You go it alone and go with your gut."

As a result, all 23 short films in this year's festival appeal more to humans—that is, they have a narrative structure and dialogue, as opposed to the more free-form format of DogTV, the television channel designed exclusively for dogs. They're also not sniffable. (Canines rely more on their sense of smell for information than vision.) But Hotchner promises that they are "equally child- and old-lady friendly," and not a single dog dies at the end. "It's a celebration of the bond between humans and dogs," she says.

Other than that, the films cover a wide range. There are animated movies and live-action movies, documentaries and fiction, in English and subtitled; the only stipulation was that they be shorts. Hotchner found most of the entries online and then tracked down the filmmakers, many of whom had moved on from filmmaking. "It was really fun," she says. "It was like looking for coins on the beach with a metal detector. The filmmakers had passion. It shines through. Most of them made their movies with no expectation that anyone would ever see them. When you see a short, you know that was not done for commerce or for glory, but for a passion for the dog."

Billy Crudup and a German shepherd in David and Goliath - COURTESY DOG FILM FESTIVAL
  • courtesy Dog Film Festival
  • Billy Crudup and a German shepherd in David and Goliath

The festival is divided into two programs of about an hour and a half each; Hotchner promises gems in both sessions. Among her favorites are Looking for Love and Game of Bones, both starring Helen, a versatile black Lab from Australia who is capable both of scanning the online classifieds and waging her own Game of Thrones; A Boy and His Dog, a documentary about the friendship between Owen, an English boy in a wheelchair, and Haatchi, an Anatolian shepherd who lost a paw and part of his tail when his previous owners tied him to a railroad track; Maya and Prince, another documentary about a former Las Vegas showgirl who refuses to abandon her cocker spaniel after they become homeless; David and Goliath, a World War II story starring Billy Crudup as a Jewish resistance fighter who is sheltered from the Nazis by a German shepherd; and, of course, given the breed of her own dogs, The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold, a film created and narrated by the great Weimaraner photographer William Wegman, featuring four of his dogs in a spectacular array of wigs and costumes.

"It's an emotional magic-carpet ride," Hotchner promises. "Laughing leads to wow leads to choking up."

Chicago is right in the middle of the festival's 11-city tour. The Petco Foundation is its leading sponsor, and half the proceeds from the Chicago ticket sales will go to PAWS. There will also be dogs on-site available for adoption. Hotchner is already planning next year's program—some of the films will be longer, she says, but she refuses to include any features. "Feature films with dogs aren't as genuine as the movies that matter to me," she says. "They're gooey. The people fall in love, there's a bad guy, and the dog acts like a dope."

Dog Film Festival, Sun 9/11, 11:30 AM and 2 PM, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, dogfilmfestival.com, $15, $10 children.

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