Going to the Dogs
GOING TO THE DOGS (2014)
This is a strange film because it came up out of a random conversation with Jack Woodcraft at Latimer just as I was thinking I needed to get a job very quickly. One Mile Away had sucked up so much time and I was now sinking into debt. A film I was counting on making was pulled at the very last minute I had no money. Jack said they were interested in making a film about dogfighting and I found myself volunteering.
Unlike From the Sea to the Land Beyond this film had a very hostile reception but I stand by it. I wanted to make an intelligent film about dogfighting in the context of our relationship to animals, as pets, as sources of entertainment and as enslaved sources of food. I changed through making it – I eat almost no meat and no factory farmed meat. People who hated it thought I was supporting dogfighting – I think because there was not a narration plastered all over it telling you what to think. But given the amount of abuse and death threats I received I feel entitled to say that anybody who thinks this film supports dog fighting is a fucking moron.
I wrote an article for a book with chapters by documentary makers and I will reproduce it here.
VIOLENCE and DISGUST
Dogfighting, drones and Josef Fritzl
What interests me about violence is the space it occupies in the collective imagination, how we project our horror of it onto the margins, onto the petty crimes of the powerless, disruptive underclass. Violence with real power behind it remains curiously invisible, hiding in broad daylight, obvious, commonplace, banal.
Violence is never creative. “Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.” (Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Harcourt 1970, p 53) Arendt argues persuasively that even the most despotic tyrant requires the tacit support and collusion of a substantial majority. In a democracy this enables magical thinking that legitimizes and transforms repeated invasions and bombings into something not just essential but virtuous, almost lovely.
I am drawn to the edges because that’s where everything begins to make perfect sense; raw, stripped of all pretense, it’s an inverted mirror image of the centre where massive violence is shrouded in doublespeak and euphemism, hidden behind sheets of reflective glass and banks of cameras trained to surveil every move we make.
These reflections were inspired primarily by the making of and backlash to my dogfighting documentary, (Going to the Dogs, Cutting Edge, Channel 4, June 2014). When I decided to take the job virtually everyone I told was appalled in a way they had not been while I was making films about young gang members killing each other, their blood staining the streets of the pavements we walk every day. They physically recoiled and often even held up their palms to wave away the idea of it. How could I? Many friends and colleagues who love my films said that they would not be watching this one.
I had not particularly wanted to make this film but now I was really interested.
Wherever there is a special locus for anxiety, a place where taboos and prohibitions are truly potent, where the unspeakable and the forbidden reside, that’s when I become curious. The rooms where Bluebeards wives are hidden. The dog fights. The cockfights. The muck and the dirt. The filth.
It was clear from the start that dogfighting elicits a special horror because it is a blood sport associated with the poor and the undeserving poor at that. The horse is the other domestic animal we claim to adore and we don’t eat them either, not intentionally anyway. Horseracing has a far greater rate of attrition, several hundred die on the track every year and another thousand or so animals that don’t make the grade are slaughtered in abattoirs. But horseracing is the sport of Kings, it’s out in the open and wins are celebrated with champagne.
My films have often elicited outrage. People who don’t know me think it makes me happy because surely extreme responses are preferable to lukewarm indifference? After a screening of my opera film The Death of Klinghoffer at the London Jewish Film festival, people formed an orderly queue to insult me. The first young woman set the tone. “You are disgusting and anti-Semitic and your film is disgusting rubbish!” The opera by John Adams with a libretto by Alice Goodman is a meditation on a terrible act of violence, the killing and throwing overboard of an elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair by Palestinian hijackers.
Terrorists are monsters. Dogfighters are monsters. Filmmakers who won’t join in denouncing them are monsters too. And somehow the child abusers always find their way onto the monster list. They’re monsters too of course. This means everyone else can relax because they are not-monsters.
The explosion of social media means you no longer need to be in the same physical space or even put pen to paper in order to express your outrage. I wanted to start this piece by copying out some of the Facebook messages I received after transmission. I have avoided it for as long as possible by reading Mary Douglas, eating cake and looking out of the window.
Here are a few of the first lines, each ellipsis signaling a new message from a different person: “Horrible woman … You are nothing but a evil money grabbing bitch …that film disgusting … Fucking animal abuser you disgust me …You are literally the worst filmmaker I have come across …Lets put u in a fight till ure ripped to shreds you little waste of oxygen. Die!!!Die!!! … You thoroughly EVIL WITCH may you reap what you sow … I think you and ur film are disgusting … You ignorant self seeking cunt! …You’ll be filming peodophiles next … Absolutely disgusted … You bitch you should be sacked … Penny Woolcock you are a disgrace…You heartless moron who obviously is sick in the head … I hope they lock you up and throw away the key you pathetic evil bitch … You disgusting pompous human being … Lets see u get put in a ring and get ur horrible head ripped apart … Perhaps someone should use you as bait … You should be ashamed of yourself … Sick!! … What next follow a serial killer around? … You are HATED right now and rightly so … You disgusting human being … You are a vile whore nothing but a rotten bitch … You sick vile woman … You are a piece of shit … What a stinking bit of shit you produced… Your disgusting … You are sick twisted and fucked up … I am disgusted … You are the scum of the earth shame on u! … You need to go on twitter you are probably the most hated person in the UK … the most disgusting thing I have seen aired on British television … You are the most disgusting coward, cold hearted person I have ever not met … You disgust me …” (Penny Woolcock, Facebook – many now in my ‘Other’ folder.)
Apart from these abusive Facebook messages and it was precisely the grinding repetition that made them effective, 26,000 people signed a petition to ban Going to the Dogs the weekend before it was broadcast, there were 1,805 complaints to Ofcom after it was screened and a hostile Twitter storm suggested I should have acid thrown in my face. I accepted a large number of Facebook friend requests from angry dog lovers because I was open to debating the choices I had made. After all there are legitimate questions to be asked about what I had filmed and the voyeurism I had admitted to on camera. But whatever I wrote just provoked a repetitive torrent of abuse. Many of my interlocutors asked why I had demonized the pitbull dog. There are two lengthy sequences in the film explicitly defending the breed. In the first, criminologist Simon Harding explains that at the beginning of the twentieth century the pitbull was the poster boy for the frontier spirit, a loyal family dog wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. The same animal then fell out of the public eye re-entering the frame as the devil dog in the 1970’s now associated with the racialized ghettos of America. Going to the Dogs ends with a family man eloquently arguing against dogfighting while his small son climbs all over their placid pitbull and rams a plastic truck into its legs. When I pointed this out they simply repeated the original accusation with more abuse about what a cunt I was, re-posting horrible pictures of tortured and emaciated dogs – not from the film - and asking if I was proud of myself. One man calling himself Jay Training Bull Terrier, fond of posting lengthy denunciations, challenged me to admit that I had been present at the dogfights. I replied that of course I had been present, I had said so in the film and filmed it myself as it clearly says on the credits. His response was to accuse me of being ‘evasive’. I realized then I was simply a target.
After a week of this I began to regard my laptop as a toxic machine that spat venom at me; I felt nauseous and then nervous about coming home in case people were hiding inside waiting to harm me. I heard noises. I started checking behind doors and under beds. I knew I was just an algorithm to them, not a human being but the line between the real and the virtual world is more permeable than I had suspected. A couple of weeks later I met Jen Robinson, a solicitor on Julian Assange’s legal team and found myself confiding in her, thinking she’d have some experience of this. She did. “You have to block them”, she said immediately. She explained that to start with it’s like someone running a nail very softly over your skin, always in the same place. “It’s nothing right? But soon it starts hurting and then you’re bleeding. You feel like you’ve been skinned alive, you start feeling queasy all the time and then you lose your confidence.”
I forced myself to trawl through my Facebook friend list and methodically block everyone who had sent hostile messages and anyone who was a mutual friend of theirs. It went against the grain of everything I believe about censorship, although as Jen said the trolls were not interested in debate just bullying. It took a few hours but I did it. And I immediately felt liberated and no longer afraid.
The only way I know to digest this kind of thing is to think about it.
The language used was repetitive and straight from the cloaca - scum, filth, shit, cunt and permutations on disgust, disgusting, disgusted. The re-posted of images of tortured dogs to be pored over and over, reminded me of William Gladstone and the Victorian gentlemen from The Church Penitentiary Society Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women, who were obsessed with prostitution. A fetishistic fascination with what you profess to loathe is one good way of letting it in the house without admitting you want it there. “Disgust always bears the imprint of desire. These low domains apparently expelled as ‘Other’, return as the object of nostalgia, longing and fascination. The forest, the fair, the theatre, the slum, the circus, the seaside-resort, the ‘savage’.” (Stallybrass and White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Methuen 1986 p.191)
I sifted through the piles of insults and I found three rational grounds of complaint.
Firstly I had showed dogs being trained for a fight and two of these techniques were extreme. One dog was made to run tied to an electric treadmill and another was shown pulling his owner uphill on a bicycle while he clutched the brakes. My fear before starting research was that the fighting dogs would be starved and beaten to make them vicious. This turned out to be nonsense. The dogfighters drew an analogy with boxing; a starved and humiliated boxer is not going to be a confident fighting machine. The dogs were well fed and treated and the two I knew best had a close bond with their owners. The training is grueling but so is that of any athlete. The reality of the training was less gruesome than my imagining of it and so I chose to show it.
Filmmakers make good waiters. We wait ages for funding. Then if it’s a fiction you wait for actors to be ready, for lights and sound, for props to arrive, for the rain to stop, the traffic to pass, the baby to stop crying … the list goes on. When it’s a documentary on a sensitive or illegal subject, people let you down constantly because you are not paying them and they don’t know if they can trust you. I spent weeks at the Travelodge in Birmingham waiting in a soulless room with a view of the car park watching daytime television. I watched the Jeremy Kyle show for the first time in my life and thought that dogfighting could not possibly be as cruel. By the time I was told we could film a dogfight I was frankly relieved. Cue more outrage. These were off the chain bouts – short fights to test a dog’s aptitude. The final film includes several minutes of the first fight and a brief sequence from the second.
Once I was going to make a film about dogfighting I thought there had to be some dogfighting. If a full match had taken place – it didn’t happen only because the main dog was raided by the police and killed, or rather put down because only the poor kill dogs - I would have filmed it too.
The first bout was a washout because one of the dogs wouldn’t fight, possibly because Dylan, my presenter and I had spent so much time petting her while waiting for the other dog to turn up. The next two dogs were up for a fight including Sniper, the dog on the treadmill. His owner fished a gun out of his pocket and started waving it around.
I say yes to things. I take one little step, another little step, another tiny step and whoah I’m flying down the rabbit hole and I’m hanging around in a park at dusk with armed men who want to kill me or sitting on a bed listening to a killer talk about his murders or hearing two young men tell as a funny story how they broke into a man’s house, and one of them stabbed him in the belly and broke his legs with a hammer while the other one laughed and licked a Cornetto he’d found in the freezer or I’m in a garage in the middle of nowhere about to film a dogfight with men with guns. And this is what it’s come to.
There was a flurry of biting and fighting. These days I have to shoot my own documentaries, so I furiously concentrated on keeping the dogs in focus and in the frame, remembering to pan up to get shots of the few spectators who had turned up. They were biting and snarling and then I could see Sniper with his jaw clamped on the other dog’s leg and I heard the referee shouted scratch them, scratch them and they stuck a breaking stick in Sniper’s mouth to prize his jaw open before he broke it and I panned over to Sniper being sponged down before being put back in the pit and the two dogs fought again. It was all one shot. When it was over I cut and looked around. Cyrus the sound recordist and Dylan the presenter looked shocked. They shook their heads and blew out air. They had found it intense. I felt nothing.
The next morning I woke up with a pounding headache that became more pronounced as the day went on. By the time I returned to London it was a full-blown migraine that lasted three days. The camera had protected me from feeling anything at the time but that wasn’t the end of the story. The feeling sat in my stomach and fucked with my head and I woke up sweating. Violence gets under your skin.
The second complaint was that I had not clearly condemned dogfighting. There is a trope in contemporary television, a jaunty, mocking, regional voice-over, usually male, belonging to someone you never see. The voice introduces what you are about to see and then passes judgment on it, the bad home cooked dinner, the naughty benefit fraudster, the fat Big Brother contestant, leaving you no space to have a thought of your own.
The last shot of a fighting dog in Going to the Dogs is of a little brown bitch whimpering in pain on a pile of bloody wet-wipes. I cannot fathom how this image could possibly be interpreted as glorifying dogfighting. But without a narrator standing between them and the film, angry viewers felt let down and confounded. What were they supposed to think?
They felt invaded by an uncomfortable image of a dog in pain. The soft tissue of the eye is the portal through which images enter our brains and then hang about delighting or disturbing us in very material ways. The little dog was in their private space, ‘matter out of place’ as Mary Douglas calls it. The film has wormed itself inside us uninvited. It can literally make us sick. Disgust us. And we lash out to expel the invader. “If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.” (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge and Keegan Paul 1966, p44.)
Douglas talks about pollution behaviour, rules and restrictions that we obey in order keep our social relationships and hierarchies intact. In our culture, pets are granted special privileges that separate them from other animals. Cruelty to them is considered even more horrifying than cruelty to children. We give them the run of the house and we don’t serve them for dinner. When we kill our pets, we euphemistically call it putting them to sleep.
We define ourselves as human by what we are not: almost the first thing we teach small children is the not us of the animals in the zoo and on Old Macdonald’s Farm. I began to wonder whether this special treatment of dogs helps us overlook our mistreatment, farming and slaughter of other animals, the exceptions that hide the brutal rule we exercise over the other creatures who live with us on this planet, many of them also fully conscious, with recognizable faces, eyes, noses, lips and ears.
The third objection was that I had protected the dogfighters by distorting their voices at source their faces disguised with balaclavas. I did not identify them or film anything that could be used as evidence in court and I did not hand over footage or information to the police.
Between me and the people who agree to be in my films there is absolutely nothing but trust. I say people advisedly. Not characters or subjects. This is not semantics; I am mindful that people have lives after transmission, they are not defined as characters in my films. Without trust neither they nor I are safe. I never work undercover, change my name or speak differently and I never film people secretly. I hand out my only phone number and plenty of them have been to my home and me to theirs. I’m not pretending to be objective because that’s nonsense anyway. My work is to go out into the world and tell the best truth I can about it. I do not work for the police.
I hope that by looking carefully at what terrifies me, it will lose its power. It’s the nameless dread, the invisible presence of the unspoken and unspeakable that terrifies me, the enormous lies that hide inside what is not said. My mother was a Christian Scientist and their mantra, the scientific statement of being, is to deny the reality of anything unpleasant and know the truth, which is that it does not exist. (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 1875). There are no headaches, there is no poverty, there are no wars, no cruelty or natural disasters. I couldn’t live with that.
Like Oedipus I feel more at ease knowing the truth, however terrible and inconvenient it might be. Whether it is Mummy’s Christian Science that still propels me doesn’t really matter. I want to know about the stuff we consider so monstrous that the only acceptable response is a howl of disgust. (‘What is next after your sickening illegal barbaric dog fighting programme? Filming a pedophile, rapist or a murderer carrying out there (sic) acts?’) Because the paedophiles, the incestuous fathers and - however disproportionately ridiculous the analogy it might seem to me - the dogfighters, are not like us. I suspect that these howls erupt in order to whip up a cloud of confusion to hide how paper-thin the divide really is, how complicit we all are. Not because we are all secretly wanting have sex with children but because those who do are very close to home. At the time of writing, a scandal has broken about a ring of Pakistani taxi drivers grooming and raping girls in care in Rotherham. Leaving to one side the collusion of the police and a care system predicated on not caring about vulnerable children, this episode might still be squeezed neatly into the them not us narrative, if the us is white, English and middle class. But what about the paedophile Liberal MP Cyril Smith who preyed on hundreds of boys in state run hostels and schools for children with learning difficulties, protected by his party, by the police and security services. The Elm Guest House in southwest London was allegedly frequented by politicians, high ranking policemen and celebrities. A dossier compiled by the late MP Geoffrey Dickens went missing after it was handed to the former home secretary Lord Brittan in 1983 and the two most famous children’s entertainers on British television have been outed as predatory paedophiles. Let alone the scandals in the Catholic Church. This is all beginning to sound very much like the us of us.
Elfriede Jelinek’s brilliant essay on Josef Fritzl (Im Verlassenen, quoted by Nicolas Spice, London Review of Books, 5 June 2008) speaks to this, scratching at the surface of what she calls the ‘land of smiles’, the tourist Austria of rows of yellow and pink freshly painted houses, cowbells and geraniums, an ahistorical storybook land of collective amnesia. This is where violence lives.
We love to imagine that violence lurks on the margins, in the sewers, on the edges with the misfits who shame and terrify us. I’ve made two documentaries about homeless people (The Wet House, Channel 4, 2000 and On The Streets, BBC 2010). I was worried about hanging out with people with no teeth who appeared to be out of control so I sought advice from a major homeless organization. I was warned me to be careful with scarves or loose clothing when bending over a homeless person in case they throttled me, never to touch anybody and chillingly, not to be kind because they’re not used to it. It soon became obvious that there was a breathtaking phobic inversion at work. Homeless people are always the targets of violence not the perpetrators. They are kicked, spat at, pissed on and insulted, set on fire and even killed for fun. I never saw or heard about a single instance of ‘a member of the public’ as homeless people refer to the rest of us being attacked. We invert our shame about the violence we indirectly or directly inflict on others and turn it into fear. Most of the violence of the oppressed is directed inwards, towards themselves and each other.
In a desperately unequal society it’s not that the oppressed don’t want to retaliate, they just don’t have the military capability. From street robbery to the Hamas rockets that bounce harmlessly off the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system, their violence is often petty and ineffective but perhaps preferable to remaining supine. Franz Fanon writes: “violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” (The Wretched of the Earth Grove Press 1968, p 94)As a child growing up in a socially divided country where the desperately poor were not across the world but living by the railway track in shantytowns, we understood that we had so much more than they did and that they dreamt of taking our place.
So where is the real violence? It hides in plain sight, lighting up the skies of Baghdad like the 4th of July, behind military campaigns with video game titles like Desert Storm and Shock and Awe; our violence is spectacular, clean, clinical and restorative of order. The violence of others, of ISIS for example, is dirty, barbaric and chaotic. When soldiers on our side kill people they’re heroic. When they do it it’s sickening. The rates of suicide among our returning soldiers is swept under the carpet with the Other and disguised with acronyms because they say that killing people gives you nightmares. Drones and military aircraft dropping one thousand pound bombs is civilized warfare, chopping heads off with a machete is not. A drone sounds boring, not barbaric. The enemy, a spectre we call terrorism justifies everything we do to obliterate it. “The story of terrorism is written by the state … the spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.” (Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso 1998, p 24.)
The young men who remotely pilot these deadly aircraft are sitting in bunkers in Nevada or Lincolnshire watching porn and playing video games. Or perhaps they’re reading Proust and playing the piano. They are not filming each other beheading infidels with their bare hands, and the killing happens thousands of miles away – they say that 5000 miles is best. Unfortunately for Lindy England, she removed the smiling mask and showed the violence for what it was in Guantanamo Bay, a naked man at the end of a dog leash. The Israeli government describe their incursions into Gaza as mowing the lawn and bombing schools and hospitals as eliminating terror capabilities. Rendition once meant a performance or interpretation, it became extraordinary rendition and now it’s just ordinary again; it means flying terrorist suspects to be tortured in countries “with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners” Shorter Oxford English dictionary: (Oxford University Press 2014 www.oxforddictionaries.com accessed 26.8.2014.) Euphemisms are the name of this game. The performance takes place at one remove and nobody’s hands get dirty.
Dog fighting has no euphemism. It is exactly what it says on the tin. Two dogs are fed a high protein diet, trained to a peak of fitness and set to fight each other. The performance lasts until one of them submits. At this point the loser is usually very damaged and has to be put down.
It might seem deliriously far-fetched to connect drones to Josef Fritzl and dog fighting but perhaps not quite as delirious as the curious fact that only two of those three invokes disgust.