White Dog is a new short film by Minneapolis based filmmaker and artist Rini Yun Keagy. It will be screened in the program From the Interior, at theCenter for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Scotland on Thursday, May 25. The program is organized by the Walker’s Bentson Archivist/ Programmer Ruth Hodgins in collaboration with LUX Scotland, and is a collection of eight short films that highlight the concerns, affections, fears and curiosities of multiple artists based in the richly diverse Minnesota region.
Thick tubes of white hair, glassy black eyes, and the grey leathery skin of a dog’s paw. So close you feel like you can reach out to touch, smell, hear his energy. The viewer merges with the dog when filmmaker and artist Rini Yun Keagy draws us in, smothering us with the life and breath of her beloved family pet.
The silent and tender four minute film White Dog is almost a whisper, a glimpse into a brief moment of interruption in a family structure, when the spirited and vital dog Smokey experiences a mysterious leg malady, and his human companions are faced with making life or death decisions on the periphery. More than a portrait of “man’s best friend” Keagy addresses the uncomfortable facts of human-animal relationships, where “owners” have to make life changing decisions for a creature they ultimately can’t communicate with. Wrestling with conscience, fear, and distress, the family who are barely visible in the margins of the film, face the burden of power as they go through the motions and then act out what they think is best for a loved member of the family.
White Dog pulls the viewer in so they are on their knees and living in the moment with Smokey the dog. Ultimately it’s where Keagy places the viewer which makes the film so impactful, curious, and heartbreaking. You experience life on the level of Smokey, inheriting his mannerisms by being close to his fur, skin, and limbs, walking next to him, being guided through the film with little hint about where we’re being taken. Here the structure of moving image is vital for leading the viewer along in parallel to the dog. Neither truly knows which direction the beings on the periphery are going, but we are clear on certain facts: the pain, the malady, the food, the walks, the structure of a typical dog’s day. In silence we follow, hopeful and expectant, looking up for complete and utter guidance. Keagy beautifully constructs this shared experience by emulating the forward momentum and function of life with the pulse-like rhythmic bursts of image, mirroring in my thoughts what it would be like to be taken through life without command. Is this what it means to be a pet? We’ll never know, but perhaps the right question to ask actually is: Is this what it means to lose control? Here is where I take pause and why White Dog has lingered in my thoughts since my first viewing. The helplessness and unfairness, the uncontrollable nature of what the family is working with, where the only choice is to move forward and wish for the best without knowing what that truly means. Diving down and coming up for breath until you reach the other end, one that is familiar but adjusted with a new perspective. Here the minimal color palette and tightly framed images that Keagy uses cleverly communicate fear of the unknown and anxiety of power. Sometimes nothing more that a haze of white fur, often with a glassy black eye looking into the heart of the viewer, and in the details the pupil reflects everything happening beyond the camera right back into it. The muted colors act as the vehicle for moving through the status quo, that which is familiar and acceptable. But this trajectory is periodically interrupted by bright flashes of color, a glob of red blood running down the dog’s leg is even more visceral and warning when it flashes up against the white hair and the black stills in the film. The yellow light coming in from a window, or the sparkling new skin of a toddler’s feet, both act as jarring alarm bells against the cool muted colors in Smokey’s (and the viewer’s) typical field of vision.
It’s the minimal and modest framework of White Dog that in my view is most effecting. It demonstrates that often what is not seen or heard has the most significance. It’s the quietest statements and snap moments that change the course of a life, sometimes without us even realizing. I won’t tell you what happens to Smokey, in truth we never really find out. Ultimately it’s what Keagy so subtly teaches us that remains vital and in some way agonizing. We’re not dealing with a narrative with an optimistic outlook. We’re grappling with cold realities of life: The fear of hopelessness, but getting on with it; the difficult choices that you don’t have time to think over; trying your best but simply not knowing what the right choice is. It’s about desperately wanting to communicate but not being able to engage. Silently and quickly living stories, sometimes blindly. The allegory within the story of White Dog functions through the symbiosis of the human-animal relationship highlighting the choices we end up making and working with throughout our everyday. Mostly well intended, and hopefully honest, much like the compassionate and selfless relationship between man and man’s best friend.