On the surface, the documentary Space Dogs is about the Soviet space program during its infancy, when dogs were placed into spacecrafts and sent above the atmosphere and eventually (usually) brought back. Sometimes the animals were alive and visibly shaken; other times they were dead. To the human scientists, it didn’t really matter, at least not until they were ready to run such missions on a more visible level. After those missions, they were able to mate a male and female dog who had been to space about a month after returning, and the resulting puppies were given to dignitaries and celebrities in the former Soviet Union. The idea was to prove that going to space didn’t harm a mammal’s reproductive abilities or result in mutant offspring.
The common factor among all of these dogs (the Americans used chimps) was that they were all strays, taken from the streets, tested extensively and selected for these missions as much for their appearance as their ability to withstand the rigors of space travel. The first-ever living thing sent into space was one of these strays—a female named Laika, who died upon re-entry. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Space Dogs is less about the space program and more about the toughness of these street dogs, who seem to co-exist on Russian streets right alongside humans but are also clever survivors who can transform into something more vicious when necessary.
Filmmakers Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter seem to exist side by side with these animals, who roam the streets and structures of whatever city they happen to live in, on the constant hunt for food. It’s impossible not to sense certain traits and patterns in their behavior. We see what noises and movements they react to, and which barely warrant a second glance. We see them at play, how they behave when they get territorial, how they are capable of destroying a part of a car with just their teeth, and how they are shown affection by most humans they come into contact with. Then, in one unforgettable moment, we’re walking along with a pair of dogs, the camera gliding next to them at their level, when they turn a corner and spot a cat. There’s a brief moment where everything freezes, when you catch your breath; then the cat makes a move to run, and one of the dogs gets it in its jaws and crushes it, turning it into a limp (but sadly, not entirely lifeless) object that it carries around and tears at for the next couple of minutes.
It’s a sequence that will haunt me for a long time, but it also encapsulates the point of the film: these dogs are wild animals that have grown comfortable around people but will eat anything they can kill. These strays were not sent to space for being cute and friendly; the Soviets need them to be tough, nearly indestructible to survive gravitational force, extreme heat, and the experimentation they had to endure on both sides of their missions. And by sticking primarily to the dogs’ POV, a world that we as humans are familiar with suddenly becomes unfamiliar and nerve-wracking. It’s a fascinating examination of perspective and seeing things through the eyes of another species, both on the streets of Russia and in the heavens. Where else are you going to find something as purely cinematic?
The film is now available via Facets’ Virtual Cinema program, through October 8. Space Dogs is Not Rated, but it does contain graphic content that some viewers may find upsetting. Parental guidance is suggested for younger viewers.
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