HFF 2015 Interview: The Champions Director/Producer Darcy Dennett

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The Champions is an inspirational story about the pit bulls rescued from the brutal fighting ring of Atlanta Falcon’s star quarterback Michael Vick, and those who risked it all to save them, despite pressure from PETA and The Humane Society to euthanize the dogs. It is a story of second-chances, redemption and hope. This uplifting documentary takes us on a journey about much more than just dogs — about prejudice, being misunderstood, the power of resilience and the significance of the relationship we as humans have with animals. The Champions is a 2015 Heartland Film Festival Official Selection, Documentary Feature.


We spoke with Director/Producer Darcy Dennett about her film:

HF: What is your film about, and how did the project come to be?

DD: On the surface, The Champions is a documentary about the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring and the rescue and redemption of over 50 dogs that many wanted killed. But to me the film is about much more. It’s about the significance of the relationship humans have with animals, and our responsibility to be their voice, as they don’t have the ability to speak for and defend themselves.

In a sense, I didn’t choose the topic—the topic chose me. From 2007-2009 I was the producer of National Geographic’s series Dogtown, and during the course of the series we followed the work of Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. The Vick case broke as we were shooting the second season and we covered the initial rescue of the dogs. The memory of these dogs never left me, and I continued to follow their lives. I became increasingly aware that there was a powerful story waiting to be told.

HF: What was your role in the production?

DD: I am the director/producer, and also an executive producer.

HF: Why did you submit to the Heartland Film Festival? Have you been to the Festival before?

DD: This is my first independent documentary and I’m new to the festival scene. Heartland Film Festival was mentioned more than a few times by fellow filmmakers as I was trying to wrap my head around which festivals it made the most sense to submit to. Heartland has a reputation for being a great festival for documentaries, but also for being a “filmmaker’s festival,” that filmmakers really enjoy. This will be my first time attending Heartland and I’m very much looking forward to it! The lineup looks incredible and I’m looking forward to catching some interesting films!

HF: This year’s tagline is “Movies That Stay with You” – what lasting effect will your film have on moviegoers?

DD: I hope the audience at Heartland walks away from the film with a more informed point of view about pit bulls and a richer understanding of what the relationships with the animals in their own lives might look and feel like.

HF: What has inspired you to become a filmmaker?

DD: When I headed off to college I wanted to become a doctor but I took a great documentary class at the same time I took a chemistry class, and the rest is history! The class was taught by the late Professor Jonathan Mednick. Jonathan inspired me and many of my classmates to pursue documentary as a career. He taught us about the excitement of sharing your point of view through moving pictures, and the power documentary has to make a statement. I feel fortunate that I discovered something I love so early in life, as it’s enabled me to live such an extraordinary life. I’m an introvert by nature, but there’s something about photography and film that forces me out into the world to experience all that it has to offer, first-hand.

HF: What is something that you know about filmmaking now, but you weren’t told when you started your career?

DD: When I first started out in New York City working in photography and film, I really wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make a living. Fortunately, the landscape over the last twenty years has changed dramatically and it’s now possible to support yourself in a career as a documentary filmmaker.

HF: What are some of your favorite movies? What’s your favorite worst movie (you know it’s bad, but still love it)?

DD: There are so many great films it’s hard to choose! There are all the classics, but a few less typical films that spring to mind are Tampopo, a quirky Japanese movie about ramen and sex, very comical. The film Kes, by Ken Loach is amazing because the way that it’s filmed makes it feel real like a documentary, even though it’s fiction, and it’s such a heartbreaking story. There are so many great documentaries I’m a bit of a junkie, and I watch as many as I can, but the documentary When We Were Kings, by Leon Gast, about the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman made such a strong impression on me years ago when I saw it in the theatre. It’s film, and shooting documentaries in film is so challenging! I’m not sure about “favorite worst,” because even films that are “bad” have so much to teach. When films are “bad,” it’s engaging to think about why.

HF: How many film festivals has your film been a part of? What do you like the most about the festival experience?

DD: We premiere next weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Oct. 10, so Heartland will only be the second festival for The Champions. My favorite part of the festival experience is that it’s a very good excuse to take time out of my otherwise busy life to meet other filmmakers, which is so inspiring creatively. It’s great to learn new things by attending panels. And it’s surprisingly compelling to see documentaries on the big screen, versus a television!

HF: Heartland Film Festival moviegoers love filmmaker Q&As. Let’s say a Festival attendee wants to earn some brownie points—what is a question that you’d love to answer, but haven’t yet been asked?

DD: What advice would you give to someone who was considering documentary filmmaking as a career?


See The Champions at the 2015 Heartland Film Festival

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