Photo: Grasshopper Film
Before We Vanish by Christopher Bourne Film

Buddy May 6, 2019

As a foolproof, crowd-pleasing subject, you can’t go wrong with dogs and their owners. So it’s not hard to see the appeal of veteran Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy. But it’s to Honigmann’s great credit that she doesn’t just settle for the sentimentalism to which this material is often prone, but instead exhibits many of the perceptive and deeply empathetic qualities that have been hallmarks of her long and storied career. Buddy follows six service dogs and their owners, intimately detailing the intense emotional bonds between them, which no doubt is often far stronger than those between people and their non-working pets. Through close observation (often shot from dog-eye level), and by utilizing Honigmann’s gently prodding off-screen queries, the focus shifts squarely to the valuable tasks and emotional support provided by these dogs to their human subjects.

In some of the most engaging scenes in the film, a dog operates doors and drawers with ropes tied to them, as well as fetches printouts for a wheelchair-bound woman who works from home. Other dogs provide support for an autistic boy; an Afghanistan war veteran suffering from PTSD and combat-related injuries; an elderly woman blinded during the Second World War; a middle-aged man slowly losing his vision; and a young, wheelchair-bound heavy metal fanatic. The unique skills of these dogs come to the fore, most pertinently their unceasing vigilance and attentiveness to the needs of the humans they serve, as well as their seemingly inexhaustible capacity for patience (one which far exceeds that of humans, according to the multiple non-canine participants here). Far more than a nice movie about nice people and their nice dogs, Buddy offers a series of intensely moving and complex love stories, all beautifully told and vividly captured.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 4.