Hand in Leash

A documentary about kinship and significant otherness

Hand in Leash is a personal, exploratory documentary investigating the kinship between humans and dogs. Through observing and speaking with others, as well as turning the camera on my own relationship with my dog Stella, this film questions what we know about the human/animal dichotomy, while revealing how our relationships with these non-humans can reshape our philosophies on life. The film’s light-hearted style brings a new perspective by moving the camera to a new level and letting the dogs “speak” for themselves.

What the documentary short here: http://vimeo.com/ashleyviolet/handinleash

How my dog taught me to be a documentary filmmaker

Everyday holds a journey

A journey is about the act of movement and discovery more than the final destination.

My dog finds great enjoyment and meaning in her daily walks, and although they often lead to the park where she can play with other dogs, sometimes getting to the park can be more fun and exciting than being there. The idea of the journey means constant learning and discovery, that there is no final answer to many of life’s questions. It is important as a documentarian to continually be in a process of discovery, even if this process takes place in seemingly insignificant daily encounters along the way.

Never ending shedding

There is no such thing as objective observation; a filmmaker always leaves a mark.

Wherever my dog goes she leaves a trace of herself behind in the form of her constantly shedding double coat. Although it might not always be as obvious as light fur on black pants, the documentary filmmaker is also shedding their choices, ideologies and viewpoints on the subjects and the audiences of their films. The documents we create are a record of the encounter between filmmaker and subject, not direct observation of untouched truth.

Documentary is performance

Embracing the inherent performance of documentary leads to deeper meaning.

My dog loves food, and she will try anything to get it, including all the tricks in her repertoire. As documentarians our goal is much more lofty than a couple of treats, but we still use performance in order to find or reveal what we are looking for. What we are often seeking is a more profound truth or meaning in an experience, beyond what can be observed from a distance. Performance gives the audience access to thoughts and feelings that previously could not be thoroughly expressed through more observational documentary traditions.

Use non-verbal communication

The aesthetic speaks as loudly as words

Because my dog and I can’t communicate very well through verbal language, we both use a large number of nonverbal cues and body language in order tell each other what we are thinking and feeling. The aesthetics of a film are its visual language, used to communicate feelings and impressions to one’s audience. And if used appropriately according to one’s subject, they add an important expressive element of communication.

Get up close and personal

Don’t be afraid to get uncomfortably close to your subject

When dogs first meet they get up close and personal, using their noses to learn intimate details about the other. Unfortunately the human sense of smell is not so powerful or precise. But what I have learned from this is to not be afraid to get close and personal with your subject. Some of the best documentaries are those where there is a clear personal relationship between filmmaker and subject.

Always be alert

Be alert and ready for opportunities and keep your mind open to possibilities.

Even when my dog is napping she always keeps her ears open, ready to alert me of anything unusual. The documentary filmmaker also has to keep his/her eyes and ears open to opportunities or twists in a story. Part of the excitement of working in documentary is not always knowing where plots and characters will take you. By keeping an open mind we remain open to possibilities and understanding that might not fit our established mental framework. Our subjects offer us an opportunity to broaden our understanding of the world, something we should be open to and ready to accept.

Be a good listener

Listening to others is as important as speaking

Part of what makes my dog such a great companion is that she is almost always a great listener, staring intently and tilting her head just so when I speak to her, even if she doesn’t understand. As documentarians who use special tools to speak for others it is important to put an emphasis on first being a good listener, allowing subjects to speak freely and without judgment before drawing conclusions. I propose an attempt to embody the documentary medium, becoming a tool through which by first listening and then speaking, we are able to convey the thoughts and feelings of others to a broader audience.

Know yourself

Know yourself and the lens through which you look at your subject and your audience.

As far as I can tell, my dog’s consciousness is pretty straightforward, she knows she is a dog and recognizes other dogs. Her actions towards the world are instinctual except where I have trained her otherwise. For humans it doesn’t seem to be so cut and dry, there are questions of race, gender, class, ideologies and so on that we have all been socialized to incorporate into our identities. There is no way to erase our social frameworks and prejudices, but we can start to undo the power they have over our thoughts and actions by being aware of them, which is being aware of ourselves.

Know your audience

Be aware of the needs of your audience and how best to reach to them.

My dog doesn’t really like to watch television; the only time she pays attention is when there are other dogs on the screen. This indicates to me that it is important for documentarians to know their audience(s). As documentarians we have a narrower audience than others. One that we should be aware of in order to stay focused on our goals, and portray our subject in a way that is meaningful for them. Knowing your audience doesn’t mean appealing to everyone, it means making something meaningful for someone.

Don’t write documentary manifestos 

Keep the documentary tradition fluid and evolving.

My dog lives day to day without a lot of thought or worry about what might have been or what is to come. As documentary filmmakers it is also important to live in the moment. Reflecting on past traditions is critical in order to know where we stand today, but placing too much emphasis on a strict set of conditions by which to make documentaries limits the future possibilities of the medium. By writing this manifesto I have set down some expectations and guidelines for my work, but I have tried to make them general guidelines that allow for fluidity and evolution.