MEDIA REVIEW: SUN DOGS HARNESSES HEART AND HOPE IN JAMAICA

It seems dog mushing has once again popped up where we least expected it,in beautiful, sunny and, most importantly, hot Jamaica.The new documentary, “Sun Dogs,” features the fledgling Jamaican Dogsled Team that includes a couple of ragtag mushers and their brood of unwanted mongrels.Danny Melville, founder of the Jamaican team and owner of Chukka Caribbean Adventures, wanted to bring the limelight to Jamaica with a wacky, heartfelt project. And this is about as wacky as it gets. It’s even more crazy than the Jamaican bobsled team, which, at the 1988 winter Olympics, captured hearts around the world with its tale of dedication to a sport that, let’s face it, doesn’t really go hand-in-hand with sun and surf.So here we are again, nearly 10 years later and Jamaica has made the lighter side of the news again. But this time throw in entertainer Jimmy Buffet, who’s a title sponsor of the dogsled team, and you’ve got the makings of an exciting, albeit kooky, project.The 90-minute flick, produced and directed by Toronto’s Andrea Stewart, shows viewers the humble beginnings of what Melville hopes will become a major tourist attraction: sled dogs in Jamaica. Aside from the tourist angle, there is the lofty goal of getting “chief dog musher” Devon Anderson on the race path, in hopes of competing in more northern climes.Going from a four-dog, dryland race in Scotland to a 1,000-mile, 14-dog race in the sub-Arctic will require a strict regime of training and acclimation from our Jamaican hero. But as the film shows, Anderson is passionate about the dogs and is dedicated to learning more.(Though it’s not in the film, it was announced recently that Anderson would spend the 2007-2008 winter racing season training with three-time Yukon Quest champ Hans Gatt.)The film gives the obvious impression that this is all one big publicity stunt, which in a way, it is. Even so, Melville is taking unwanted dogs bound for certain death and giving them a purpose. Not to mention taking young people bound for not much more than living in squalor and giving them not only a purpose, but an education as well. Many young people are getting a second chance thanks to Melville’s program.The film follows Anderson as he trains, with the help of Minnesota “expert” mushers Rick and Annette Johnson, and travels to Europe to compete in his first race – a dryland rally in Scotland. He has a respectable finish after a rough first day, and it’s there that he hooks up with another coach, Alan Stewart. But as he travels to races, Anderson can’t use the rescued dogs he worked so hard with. Because of Jamaica’s quarantine laws, dogs can be removed, but they’re not allowed back in the country. So Anderson is forced to use other people’s race dogs, which is stressful for both dog and musher, but not addressed in the film.Much of the film, which is about 30 minutes too long, is spent talking about the struggles of the country, especially the violence. It is confusing at times what that has do with Anderson and Melville’s pursuit of mushing greatness.Maybe when the world sees Anderson and his team of shelter mutts, they’ll decide Jamaica isn’t so bad after all? Or maybe it gives the country another local underdog to come together and cheer for. Stewart speaks with a human rights advocate and a political commentator, both of whom have poignant and thought-provoking insights but perhaps belonged in a different film entirely.However the director intended it, both the dog tale and the economic and social woes warrant documentaries, no question. But cramming together a light-hearted film with a heart-wrenching tale of a struggling, impoverished nation is just confusing. “Sun Dogs” is definitely entertaining, but it’s a movie with an identity crisis.The film was released and presented by Palm Pictures.Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks. She covered sled dog races for seven years before venturing into mushing herself and now owns nine huskies.

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