MINE (2009)

This review was originally published at Good Letters, the blog hosted by Image.

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As I’m writing this, my magnificent mutt of a cat—Jonathan Mardukas—is purring like he’s never been happier.

Mardukas (or “The Duke”) does this when he knows I’m not feeling well, or when he’s feeling neglected.

This time, he’s climbed onto my chest so he can stand between me and my laptop. Big, black, and beautiful, he’s overpowering my protests.

His timing is uncanny. I’m trying to write about a movie about the bond between pets and their people.

The Black Stallion is a beautiful film about the majesty of horses. Winged Migration treated birds with great respect, refusing to exploit their cuteness. But it’s hard to find films about dogs and cats that don’t short-circuit our gray matter. Canines and felines tend to become everything that art teachers tell artists to avoid: shortcuts to happy emotions, atomic bombs of sentimentality.

Normally, they show up onscreen so they can escape a disaster, giving audiences an easy cheer. Or they’re employed for comic relief, covering their eyes with their paws whenever human beings do something embarrassing. Why pay to see animals being cute when we can watch The Standing Cat for no charge at all?

Oh, look. Mardukas has jumped down to writhe on his back, swipe at the laptop cord, and beg me to play with him.

But there I go again. I need to concentrate, so I can tell you about a remarkable example being distributed by Film Movement—a documentary by Geralyn Pezanoski called Mine. Mine returns us to the familiar sights and sounds of desolation in post-Katrina New Orleans. The footage of trees bowing in the storm’s cruel onslaught. The people crying out from the rooftops. The Super Dome.

But then Pezanoski zooms in on a detail that has received very little attention—the animals that were left behind—stranded, trapped, injured, and either lost or killed.

She introduces us to several New Orleans residents who talk about their own escape from the storm. They recount, sometimes with difficulty, the painful events that separated them from their animals. (Some people made the heartbreaking decision to leave pets behind, having no way to transport them. Others, refusing to abandon them, were forcibly removed from their pets by rescuers.)

There’s Jesse Pullins, who misses his dog Jessie Jr. (or “J.J.”). Before the storm, J.J. was Jesse’s faithful companion during his long struggle to overcome homelessness. Now, the dog’s missing.

There’s Gloria Richardson, whose Labrador Murphy Brown was her dearest friend. When she refused to leave him behind, she was taken from him.

There’s Malvin Cavalier, a charming elderly man and a snappy dresser who dressed Bandit, his friendly white dog, in a red bandanna. But nobody seems to know what’s become of Bandit. So he builds a sturdy new doghouse to express his hopes and expectations.

As we try to absorb the heartbreaking statistics on how many animals probably died in the storm, Pezanoski takes us along with brave, compassionate volunteers who seek to save dogs and cats trapped in submerged houses. Then she tracks their progress as they try to reunite animals and owners, or find families willing to adopt.

Some of these stories have happy endings. But the film’s most affecting drama comes from the trouble that ensues with families who have adopted the rescued animals show no interest in returning them to their original owners.

Pezanoski thoughtfully presents all sides of these debates—the frustrated owners who have already suffered so much; the well-intentioned rescuers and helpers who solved some problems and created others; and the generous spirits who embraced traumatized animals.

Before long, there is a world of questions swirling around these friendly, fuzzy faces. In situations like these, who should determine the animal’s fates? Were sufficient efforts made to reunite animals with owners before they were given for adoption? Does it matter if the animals are treated better by an adoptive family than by the previous owners? (When you learn about the cruelty that some animals suffered in New Orleans before the storm, you may conclude that the hurricane came as a blessing.)

Furious debates ensue over issues of poverty (some owners can’t afford to take the necessary legal action to get their animals back); presumption (some want to punish the grieving victims for having left their pets behind at all); and property ownership.

Storms are devastating, but when human selfishness adds insult to injury, it just makes you want to make a citizen’s arrest. The emotional toll that Mine is likely to take on animal-loving viewers may make it seem like a long movie. (It’s only 81 minutes.) But Pezanoski avoids exaggerating the drama or indulging in sentimentality.

Some reviewers are bothered that Mine doesn’t pay more attention to the human beings killed or displaced by the storm. But many films and documentaries address this subject powerfully—I recommend an unforgettable homemade testimony called Trouble the Waters, as well as the new television series, Treme, by the makers of The Wire.

But we need a movie about this part of the tragedy too. While Mine is often painful to watch, Pezanoski’s passion and respect for her flea-bitten subjects is inspiring, as is her sensitivity toward the human beings who love them. I’m grateful for her compassion, which may improve the lives of animals never touched by storms, and encourage us to be kinder to the vulnerable creatures around us—canine, feline, and human.

And now, if you’ll excuse me…this extraordinary cat wants to wrestle.

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