Review: The Champions

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What happened to Michael Vick’s fighting dogs?

(Firefly Filmworks)

The Champions — a documentary film that follows the pit bulls rescued from famous quarterback Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring in 2007 — will at once devastate your faith in humanity and restore it. Both ends of the film’s emotional spectrum will leave you hugging your dog a little tighter.

The film opens at its darkest point. Federal officers raid Vick’s home. They find 53 living pit bulls on his property and nine dead ones. Some are chained to car axles buried in the ground. Others are pent up in a barn, where the floors and walls are stained with canine blood and the windows are blacked out from all sunlight. Vick and his partners had made a regular practice of shooting, electrocuting, and beating dogs not displaying sufficient aggression.

The 93-minute film by Darcy Dennett hovers only briefly on the aforementioned darkness, focusing more on 22 of the rescued “vicktory” dogs advocates convinced prosecutors to spare, despite significant trauma and no help from PETA, who called them “ticking time bombs.”

One of these now-recovered dogs, Cherry (pictured above owner Paul Fiaccone), lives locally in Enfield, Connecticut, and his owners Paul and Melissa Fiaccone are hosting a screening of the film at the Academy of Music in Northampton on March 12. All proceeds will go to local animal shelters.

With gorgeous cinematography capturing the red-cliffed and prairied landscapes of southern Utah, the documentary takes audiences to the Best Friends base. Animals taken here are considered otherwise unadoptable due to deformities, handicaps, and human-induced baggage. While some of the 22 traumatized dogs were ordered by federal courts to remain here for life — like Vick’s prized fighter Lucas, who had too much street cred to adopt out — the others were brought to Best Friends so trainers there could work their magic and then find homes for as many of them as possible.

And watching them coax the dogs from terrified to trusting, against the musical swells of House of Cards composer Jeff Beal, is nothing short of magic. The documentary beautifully pits the best of humanity against the worst of it, as the two cancel each other out in some sort of fated justice. It’s incredibly hopeful that dogs like Cherry, whom you can meet at the screening, can go from huddling in fearful balls to standing tall as breed ambassadors beside their loving owners.

This story is about dogs who were almost euthanized because many thought their cases were hopeless — that they were goods too far damaged. The story is about second chances. It’s about a bunch of champion canines who are, as the movie’s slogan says, “more forgiving of our species than we could ever be of theirs.”

The film is wrapping up a prize-winning festival circuit and is available for download at championsdocumentary.com.•

Shows 4 p.m. March 12 at the Academy of Music in Northampton. Tickets $8. All proceeds go to local rescues. “Vicktory” dog Cherry will be there as well as filmmaker Darcy Dennett; Q&A and panel discussion to follow.
Amanda Drane

Author: Amanda Drane

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