“The Champions” traces life after dog-fighting for Michael Vick’s pit bull terriers. A quick background: In 2007, Vick served 21 months after police busted his dog-fighting ring. After a briefing on breed discrimination legislation, “The Champions” kicks into the heart of this documentary: the advocacy, the slow rehabilitation and the true character of this breed.
It begins with pit bull Little being dressed in a pink and white polka dotted coat. Her owner describes Little’s nickname as a means to demystify “some of the pit bull mystique of the tenacious dog that latches onto something and never lets go.”
Director Darcy Dennett uses footage and soundbites to get viewers up to speed on the “before” of this story: Vick’s dogs were trained to fight. They were killed by drowning, hanging and electrocution. PETA and the Humane Society of the United States recommended all of his dogs be euthanized. Enter animal law rights and strong advocacy, which saved these dogs.
Also enter groups Best Friends Animal Society and BAD RAP, both with no-kill missions and both aimed at rehabilitation and quality of life.
Dennett shows their role to these dogs and illuminates some heart-breaking moments of this film: seeing footage of dogs “pancaking” — which is lying flat on the ground as a means of submission; seeing dogs shrink into the corner in fear; also seeing them in high alert in an observation room.
Director Dennett follows Jonny Justice, Handsome Dan and other pit bulls on their road to rehabilitation, and she hit the jackpot in old footage of their progress. With this, she does a good job of illustrating their PTSD.
“Every foster takes a lot of time, and every foster is a challenge,” said Cris Cohen. On Vick’s former pit bull Jonny: “We don’t know what he experienced, but I did know for a fact how much stress he was suffering. You could see it, it was obvious.
“Running water sent him scrambling …. Pots and pans, the garbage truck, stairs, he had his little demons,” Cohen said. And Dennett uses footage of Jonny the pit bull scattering around Cohen’s kitchen, close-ups of Jonny’s eyes squinting, his paws scurrying.
Pit bull Cherry is the antithesis of the conception of an aggressive dog. Her trainer describes the several hours she’d spent with Cherry, until finally, the dog made the decision to allow his trainer to pet him. Footage of Handsome Dan literally pushing his face in the corner as a way to disappear enlists some tears from the couch.
Other interesting notes disclosed in “The Champions”: Pit bulls are banned or restricted in hundreds of U.S. cities. The American perception of dogs has changed throughout the years. In the early 1900s, pit bulls were the family dog. The “bad dogs” have evolved from the German Shepherd to the rottweiler to now the pit bull.
“The Champions” loses some momentum in its interspersing of sources, but it’s well regarded and has received many well-deserved accolades from film festivals. Some technical notes: the background music is a bit overdramatic and distracting at times. (The subject matter is sufficiently moving.)
That said, this film is heavy on the advocacy, and it’s effective. “The Champions” poignantly illustrates the power of redemption and love and patience. It also shows that the road isn’t easy for the dog or the new owner, but this film is forthright and clear in that it’s worth it.
“The Champions” may prompt online searches for adoptable pit bulls near you. It’s worth seeing, and be prepared with the tissues.
Starring: John Garcia, Richard Hunter, Mark Buehrle
Director: Darcy Dennett
Available: Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Netflix Instant, VUDU
More info: championsdocumentary.com