The representation of dogs as family in contemporary American documentary film
Grace, Jennifer Elizabeth.
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The American family dog is a social construct that blurs the ontological boundaries of nature/culture dualism and which contemporary American documentary filmmakers represent by employing alternate tropes of 'dog as human' and 'dog as animal.' In filmic and practical use, these tropes are in flux and are confusing. The position of the dog as a paradox of nature and culture and member of the contemporary inter-species family makes the decision to euthanize it ethically challenging. Non-fiction dog programming is more popular than ever and most shows employ the 'dog as human' trope. But few address at what point that trope breaks down and how to find the line between 'dog as human' and 'dog as animal' when making ethical decisions for dogs. I will prove this by describing movies like Why We Love Cats and Dogs (Ellen Goosenberg Kent 2009) that rely on removed experts to explain the how humans are similar to dogs and those like Shelter Dogs (Cynthia Wade 2003) that follow devastating moments of loss with cheery depictions of renewal. My thesis film Soul Dog instead dives into the deep emotional conflict that many of us face in a society where dogs have become surrogate for family. Using personal subjective storytelling techniques like that in Sherman's March (McElwee 1986) and quirky vox pop interviews similar to those in Gates of Heaven, (Morris 1978) I focus on the personal stories and popular wisdom that influence our actions.