BIFF 2013 - The Last Dogs Of Winter - Cinema Review

'how do you fancy seeing polar bears playing, in harmony, with dogs?'

The Last Dogs Of Winter has a fairly amazing USP, an image that you will probably not see anywhere else, a selection of scenes that will leave many slack-jawed: how do you fancy seeing polar bears playing, in harmony, with dogs?

If that sounds incredible then the reality is even more spectacular. The footage Costa Botes provides, of dogs and bears play-fighting, rolling around, even 'hugging' in one instance, really is something you wouldn't expect to see on film; in life, on this planet. The species show up more often in mild opposition or, even more often, in complete indifference to one another, but when they jump and leap around together, his film takes on the ethereal air of something magical, something almost from the realms of fantasy literature.

This though is just one bit - albeit the best one - of a very accomplished documentary, charting the efforts of Brian Ladoon to safe-guard the lineage of the Qimmiq (a kind of large Husky) by setting up a breeding farm in the wilds of Churchill, Canada. Yes, that Churchill; the one that has the polar bears.

Botes is a long-time Peter Jackson collaborator but it is to a much greater director than even he that The Last Dogs Of Winter looks. Mixing in equal parts Grizzly Man and Encounters At The End Of The World, The Last Dogs Of Winter is Werner Herzog all over. Fascinated in equal measure by the animals themselves and the people who choose to look after them, Botes, occasionally to the film's detriment, allows the focus to drift between canine and Ladoon, as well as the latter's assistant Caleb Ross, a former actor now dog-handling and firing exploding pellets at polar bears.

At times, this is Botes' film's biggest problem. Not withstanding that The Last Dogs Of Winter is too long already, repeating sections of footage when it could have been much tighter, the clear desire of the director to engage in meaningful matters of philosophy and anthropology lead to him goading Ross on to muse on a selection of false-sounding pursuits. Actorly voice switched on, Ross here is hugely less engaging than when he is out on the ice with the dogs, where he was already proving Botes' point to a satisfactory degree. There is perhaps a problem too with the film's even-handedness, although Ladoon - a controversial figure in Churchill - does get both harsh questions and some background investigation work from Botes.

The influence of Herzog is used well by Botes though to largely keep this an engaging experience throughout. There is tension at appropriate moments - real, dangerous tension - and occasional insight, which does admittedly take second place to imagery. Understandable though. When you've got pictures of dogs playing with polar bears, I'm not sure quite how much else you need.

The 19th Bradford International Film Festival runs from 11th to 21st April 2013 at the National Media Museum and other venues near to the city.

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