Swiss-Moroccan filmmaker Halima Ouardiri’s short documentary Mutts is a captivating portrait of a shelter for stray dogs in Morocco, elegantly shot in a sunbaked color palette of rich golds and browns. The film, which makes its premiere on the Criterion Channel this week in a pairing with Kornél Mundruczó’s award-winning 2014 feature White God, combines vérité techniques with a more highly stylized visual approach. The result is both an observational exploration of its setting and a metaphor for the global refugee crisis. I was blown away by how the film managed to immerse me in this animal society—home to more than 750 strays, complete with its own rules, personalities, and hierarchies—and was curious about how Ouardiri pulled it off. So I reached out to her, and she told me about how she discovered and gained access to the shelter and what it was like to shoot in that strange environment.
To start off, could you introduce us to your background and your work?
I’m based in Montreal, but the two films I’ve made so far were shot in Morocco. Mokhtar, my first short, is a family drama in an indigenous Moroccan language called Tachelhit, and it’s about a young goat keeper who brings an injured baby owl home to his superstitious father, who sees the bird as a bad omen. The subject of my second short, Mutts, makes it look like I have a special sensitivity to the animal world in my work, but that’s not something I’ve really planned. What always drives me are stories that awaken a strong sense of injustice in me. But it’s also true that I’ve been super close to animals since I was a child. Maybe because their behaviors are predictable, I’ve always found them very reassuring. Human beings, on the other hand, can play tricks on you, even if you know them well.
How did you come to find out about this giant dog shelter in Mutts?
I saw a photo on the Facebook page of SARA Morocco, the biggest and oldest stray dog shelter in the southern part of the country, near Agadir. There were hundreds of dogs filling the frame of this picture, and they were all the same color. I had never seen anything like it. I found it very beautiful, and I wanted to film them.
Was it difficult to get permission to shoot there?
I knew Michèle Ausburger, the shelter’s founder, who used to be in charge of it as well as another shelter for cats. I had first gotten in touch with her in 2009, when I was looking for very social cats to appear in Mokhtar. We stayed in touch, and she also helped me many times to care for a few Moroccan strays, especially for Mimouna, a dog I adopted and brought back with me to Canada. Michèle does a lot to improve public health in Morocco by vaccinating and sterilizing the strays. She is an amazing resource for the country, and I hope one day everyone there will recognize her value. When I told her about Mutts, she gave me carte blanche.
How many days did you spend shooting there?
Five days on location, and we were there all day long. Once we stayed at night to film the dogs sleeping, which resulted in one of my favorite shots. There is no electricity in the shelter, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so we could rely only on a few batteries to shoot, which we weren’t able to recharge, and that gave us a maximum of only two hours of footage per day. That’s not a lot. It felt a bit like shooting on film. So we had to always carefully plan the shots, which is not easy when you’re filming animals. But they have a routine, so we got used to it, and sometimes Anna [Cooley, the cinematographer] would just roll and quietly observe their movements in long takes.
I wanted the film to be grasped on various levels, and one of them is visual: it’s a study of movement and time. Long takes allow you to observe the movement of the dogs all around us without disturbing their routine, by simply placing the camera in specific places. Long takes also give a sense of time, and there is a lot of waiting—if the dogs are not eating or sleeping, they are waiting.
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