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TIFF 2011: Botes releases Last Dogs

The man driving (pictured, above) is Caleb Ross, the New Zealand actor who had been so lost he turned up in Manitoba to help save endangered bears, and the particular strain of dogs that Inuit used to pull sledges. The qimmiq is very endearing.

There he would encounter Costa Botes, in town to make a film about the crusade, and realise they had worked together on The Tribe.

A bit rounder than your average hearthrob – if there is such a thing – and no longer sporting his characteristic long flock of hair, Caleb Ross is as sincere and decent a fellow as they come. A regular guy with an unselfconscious charisma, Ross found refuge as well as purpose in breeding dogs and caring for them at a time when he desperately wanted to turn the page in his life.

He began performing at the age of nine, and his main claim to fame was the role of Lex in the hit television series The Tribe that started in 1999 and lasted five seasons.

The show got Ross to Dragon Con in Atlanta, a massive, fan-organized antithesis to the big business-controlled convention, Comic Con. Fansites are still devoted to him on the internet. ”I’ve never been a fan, I guess. I respect a lot of people for their work, but I don’t understand much that fan mentality. I wouldn’t camp out at a hotel. It blew me away. Still, it was nice because in my home country I wasn’t that well recognized. I could live my own life.” He was frequently recognized by fans in Europe when he was on 4-6 weeks promotional tours.

Suddenly, he dropped out of sight and put all that behind himself. ”I stayed true to myself. To my friends. To my family. Just be who you are. Be a human. That’s the most simple thing to do. You don’t have to lie about anything.”

This was about a relationship that didn’t work. ”I wanted to disappear for a while. The break up was hard for me. I didn’t wanna deal with everybody asking me ’How are you, are you okay?’ I had to go somewhere where nobody knew me. In fact, the hostel I stayed at is just down the street,” he says now as a festival guest, apparently put up in the glitzy five-star establishment, the Fairmont Royal York. ”I prefer hostels, to be honest.”

The circle is almost complete, because the bulletin board at that hostel provided the bulletin board on which he found the note about the dog colony in Churchill, Manitoba.

Founder Brian Ladoon’s passion proved to be contagious. Ross realized ”it is where I can make a difference.” Sometimes he gets angry at the dogs. He agrees with the local resident who says in the film, ”It’s just like with your husband or children, sometimes you just wanna throw them out. But puppies are so damn cute,” he laughs. He refutes the notion that he’s reclusive. Well-off tourists come to see the dogs and the polar bears live together, and the villagers stick together as well. Plus he’s been in relationships over the years, so it’s not like any given girlfriend of his has to compete for his attention with the dogs.

Meanwhile, Costa Botes had moved on from television directing to documentaries. He linked up with Caleb, who became a producer as well as a co-subject of The Last Dogs of Winter.

The public screening was packed, and during the Q&A session one audience member complimented the director by saying, ”I never thought a Kiwi would show me what is it to be a Canadian.”

Botes, who is still mostly known for his 1995 mockumentary, Forgotten Silver that he co-directed with Peter Jackson, has been making documentaries for the last 7-8 years. Presenting reality itself suits well the former ”mockumentarian,” but not everyone else. He was countered with opinionated remarks like ”Why should we believe you? You made a film that wasn’t even true!”

His previous film, Candyman, about an American candymaker, he financed mostly himself to the tune of $20,000. ”There was no way I could get money for it in New Zealand.” He admits that the eligibility rule for public funding that requires NZ-specific cultural content limits his range as a filmmaker.

If Ross had not been in it, The Last Dogs of Winter wouldn’t have benefited from NZFC funding. ”But they’re more flexible now,” he adds. The scheme has already been broadened to include projects set overseas or focused on overseas subject matter. The media sector, on the other hand, is still rather strict in that respect. ”I did approach one of the broadcasters. And their response was ’No, absolutely not. It’s not New Zealand enough’.” Eventually, Dogs came in at $180,000, as this time more money was spent on post-production. Toronto selected Dogs as a work in progress. He finished sound mixing a week before the festival. Botes hopes the good buzz at Toronto will help the film find its audience at home.

In Toronto, the film is controversial. ”It looks like my dog,” a journalist, pointing at the the film’s flier, explained why he chose Botes’ documentary as a start for the day. ”I don’t have a dog. I have a daughter,” replied the female film reviewer sitting next to him.

The majority of screen time is devoted to Brian Ladoon, a sort of a Richard Harris look-alike, whose singular vision and determination borders on the insane. ”This town has got more nuts per capita than any other town I’ve known,” one resident of Churchill, where the film takes place, remarks. As with every maverick, Ladoon’s personality and methods are disputed.

Once the local residents objected to his activities so much that the conflict was potentially becoming violent, even fatal — causing the Wildlife Conservancy authority to relocate him to his current place. Which happens to be a lakeside where polar bears migrate and — for six months of the year — live (and even play) together with the dogs, never seen in nature before. For one thing, the dogs (that are meant to run and pull sleds) are chained, for their own interest, as Ladoon claims.

Botes has his own reservations about the colony. ”This operation, I don’t believe it is sustainable. I don’t believe so. It doesn’t have enough purpose to it, structure to it. All they’re doing is maintaining. They are keeping 150 dogs. What for? What they’re talking about is setting up a volunteer programme to take the dogs to work as sled-dogs. It’s what they’re meant to do. They love it.”

Some cry animal abuse. Some stakeholders even tried to pressure TIFF to pull the documentary from the programme, Botes asserts. Instead of taking sides, ”The film celebrates non-conformity. Whether you agree with him or not, he is committed to following his dreams. I want the audience to think that they can do that too.”

After four years on the job, does Ross ever get homesick, and long to stand on New Zealand’s shores instead of the Arctic snow? ”I miss the beaches. I miss my family. I still have very good friends there. I miss Wellington where I used to live.” But visiting is getting more and more difficult for he is trying to get his residency in Canada. He just returned from a six-week trip on the Caribbean where he was participating in sea turtle conservation, though he insists he is not a real wildlife activist, and is not even conscious enough in this mission to have role models.

At one point in the film, he says this is just like another role. ”When I say role, I just mean I got a lot of different things in my life. And they’re separated. Like now I’m the dogbreeder. Before that I was the actor, the musician or the bicycle carrier. And they’re all different segments of my life that once I walk away from, I turn them off. I never thought I could be someone to help out in a situation 60 degrees below zero. But acting made me realize anybody can be whatever they wanna be,” he explains after the film’s screening.

The question is what does he want to be next?

”By making this documentary, shedding light on the situation of the dogs, I thought I could finally feel comfortable walking away and play another role knowing that I achieved something. I didn’t want to leave Briand and the dogs without contributing something to them.” He still wants to build some sort of infrastructure around the project. ”Again, I’m stuck. Not that I don’t like it, ’cause I love it.”

Initially, when he came to Canada, he wanted to go to Vancouver (where several big American productions shoot on large sound stages at all times) to live and work there as an actor, and indulge in his passion for scuba diving. ”I still haven’t made it out there,” he admits with a cheeky chuckle. But he hasn’t given up on that dream.

For his next documentary, Botes has made a film of a man’s ongoing struggle with mental illness, which he aspires to take to a major festival sometime in the winter. ”I want to make documentaries that get seen at festivals. At the moment I can’t think of any New Zealand subject that would do that.” Save for a New Zealander in Rwanda whom Botes chose as a subject for another documentary. ”He was helped out by a local man when he got into trouble. Subsequently he felt an obligation to him,” returned to the country and set out to find out with a camera in his hand. ”It has an unexpected outcome.”

For the last 3 years Botes has been preparing a theatrical feature film about aviator Richard Pearse (1877-1953). One strand of Forgotten Silver dealt with the pilot. ”I believe he was the first person to fly in 1903.” Of the protracted preparations, he says, ”It’s a difficult subject. It’s about failure. You can’t say I wanna celebrate failure.” The filmmaker Bret Mckenzie from Flight of the Conchords is to play the lead role. ”He even looks like Pearse.”

Ross’ work as a cinematographer and co-producer on Dogs aroused his creativity. As a musician, he has been meaning to complete an album for a number of years. His daredevil spirits cry for adventure, too.

Adrenalin-hungry like a jock, he now wants to jump with a parachute from the upper reaches of our atmosphere, about 97,000 feet or so, to repeat a previous record — no mean feat, considering that it claimed the lives of those who tried to tried to do just that. ”I look at things and if somebody can do them, I do them.”

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