Film Review – A Dog Named Gucci

If you are familiar with the work of Writer and Director Gorman Bechard, it may be from his early dark comedies like Psychos in Love and Friends (with Benefits). Or perhaps the moody You Are Alone (which was based in part on his novel Ninth Square). More recently Bechard has made a name for himself in music-focused documentaries, notably Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements and the upcoming Who is Lydia Loveless?

 

With that kind of track record, A Dog Named Gucci may seem to be quite a departure. But it only takes a few minutes of the film to realize this is a subject he understands and cares deeply about. And it takes a special craftsman to tackle the topic of animal cruelty, and more specifically the struggle to enact tougher laws against it, without simply going the easy route of tear-jerking horrors and melodramatic soundtrack music.

 

I’m not trying to say you won’t cry when you watch this film. If you have any kind of heart, you will. But you will also be inspired to stand up and be counted, to speak out for those who have no voice. And you will have a much better understanding of just how difficult it was to get many of today’s laws in place, and just as importantly you’ll see that laws serve no purpose when time and again prosecutors choose not to pursue cases, or judges let the guilty off with a slap on the wrist because…well, because, after all, it’s just a dog.

 

Most of the film tells the story of Gucci, who became the face of animal cruelty in 1990’s Alabama (and beyond). As a ten-week old puppy, Gucci was owned by a 15-year old runaway. As “punishment” for refusing to date a local teenager, a group of males took Gucci from this girl, hung him by his neck, doused him with lighter fluid, and set him on fire. Doug James, an Adjunct Professor who was in the process of selling his home up the street, had been standing on his porch awaiting a prospective buyer. Hearing the dog’s cries, he and another neighbor rescued Gucci – still aflame – from under a house, doused him with water to extinguish the fire, and returned him to the girl. But she knew there was nobody she could turn to who could help this poor suffering creature, so she begged Doug to take him and help him, which he did. Gucci was eerily quiet all night, and Doug didn’t expect him to survive to the next morning. But Gucci was a fighter, and he did survive.

 

With this nightmare begins a multi-year fight to change the laws against animal abuse in Alabama. The prosecutor found he had to charge the thugs with destruction of property (pets being considered nothing more at the time) because the laws were written in such a way that setting fire to a couch carried a heavier punishment than strictly being charged with animal cruelty. Building a large following through the state and the south, Gucci became the face of the movement to change those laws and make animal cruelty a felony in Alabama.

 

Bechard’s direction style puts all the horrors Gucci and the other dogs he features suffered through right on the table, but is careful to keep the story moving in a forward direction. Instead of 90 minutes of happy endings, focus is constantly redirected at how difficult it is to get laws to change. The “Gucci Bill” as it became known took 6 years before it was finally passed and signed. Along the way exclusions had to be inserted about the right of a landowner to shoot a dog with a BB gun if it is going to the bathroom on his property. The details of how the debates are shaped, and how asinine some of the arguments against it become, will motivate and energize you to be more involved in strengthening the laws of your own state. Other cases are looked at that were used as rallying cries to change laws in North Carolina and Ohio; South Dakota became the 50th – and last – state to make animal cruelty a felony only a few years ago.

 

And, of course, the fight doesn’t stop there. Bechard never hits the audience over the head with anything, never browbeats. He just spells out the facts, and displays the human emotion and the faces of those who have suffered. Animal abuse is a major problem in this country; it isn’t just kids throwing rocks at stray dogs. Public pressure is the only way to make sure cases are actually prosecuted, and that punishments are handed down by the judges in a serious fashion. One poor dog who gets just a moment on the screen had been blown up by explosives; punishment in that case was a joke. The interviews with prosecutors and animal control officers are bright lights focused on what people need to do if this problem will be treated more seriously. The public must keep the pressure on local and state politicians, and need to show support for prosecutors when they are trying cases against animal abusers. As one woman says, in a courtroom there is often a group of people sitting behind the defendant…but for the victim, nobody. And these victims cannot speak for themselves.

 

The credits include the song “One Voice” – featuring stars like Niko Case, Lydia Loveless, Norah Jones, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, and Queen’s Brian May – which can be purchased through ITunes (the proceeds from the song go entirely to support the cause of animal rights and the fight against animal abuse). And, if you could do me a personal favor, watch the film all the way to the end of the credits, until the screen goes dark.

 

A Dog Named Gucci is available on DVD from Amazon and can be viewed on demand from multiple sources. There have also been local screenings, sponsored by various animal organizations and rescue groups, so keep your eye out for one of those. I urge you to watch this film, and then tell five other people about it. Buy the DVD as a gift for others if necessary…I did. Spread the word. One person, one voice, CAN make a difference. Doug James proved that, and so did Gucci.

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