Ostensibly, the documentary The Last Dogs of Winter is about the endangered Eskimo dogs and the efforts of doggedly determined Churchill resident Brian Ladoon to save this beautiful animal from extinction.
But as with the best documentaries, the film defies its own parameters. Director Costa Botes offers up wider subject matter: This is also a film about polar bears, individualism, small-town living, and the surprising roles in which people find themselves in the drama of life.
It is, perhaps foremost, an excellent portrait of Churchill.
It is that far northern Manitoba community where Ladoon found himself returning, after a period of world travel, to take on a priest's challenge to raise Eskimo dogs.
The canines were endangered in the first place thanks to the Canadian government, which took on the paternalistic policy of killing the dogs in massive numbers in a ruthless measure to prevent Inuit people from living their traditional nomadic lifestyle. If you want to bind a people to specially constructed communities, you eliminate their transportation.
Ladoon's approach to sustaining and growing the population is deemed controversial. He keeps his dogs chained on the frozen tundra. He feeds them from huge slabs of frozen poultry meat, chopped into massive chunks. They are not only exposed to the elements but they are smack dab in the turf of polar bears that freely roam the area when the bodies of water around Churchill start to ice over.
As Ladoon explains, these are Arctic animals and they are built for the frozen climate. And as for the polar bears, the relationship between canine and ursine as shown here is shockingly... playful. One particularly stunning piece of footage shows a polar bear wrapping his massive jaws around a dog's head but declining to chomp. Another shot shows a bear unmistakably cuddling a dog like a little girl would coochie-coo a kitten.
Mixed up in this world is a former New Zealander named Caleb Ross, a former TV actor who seems as baffled as anyone how he managed to end up in Churchill, assisting Ladoon in his noble mission. (Ross co-produced this film with Botes and shot much of its footage.)
Botes's past work includes the bogus documentary Forgotten Silver with Peter Jackson, as well as The Making of the Lord of the Rings. This film stands apart as a kind of nature documentary that incorporates the fractious relationships on frontiers where nature and civilization co-exist.
It's a delightful piece of work. As Ladoon says of his life's calling:
"I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but you know what? I don't drink tea."