The French duo behind “The Last Hillbilly,” which received a Special Mention in the First Appearance category at IDFA, have been pitching their new project at Swiss documentary festival Visions du Réel.
“A Dog’s Life” will follow the journey of six teenage girls from the juvenile detention center in Bakersfield as they embark on a rehabilitation program: for three months, the girls will attempt to mend their own lives by taking care of a rescued dog.
Diane Sara Bouzgarrou told Variety how she and partner Thomas Jenkoe were inspired to pick up where they had left off with their first feature collaboration.
“We finished our last doc, ‘The Last Hillbilly,’ filming kids who were on the edge of teenagehood. The wild fires in California were very much a concern for them so we felt our next film should start where that one had ended,” she said.
They focused on Bakersfield, a city ranked among the most polluted in the U.S., for several reasons.
“It is a city that struggles with so many layers of violence: sociological, economical and ecological. It is surrounded by thousands of derricks, the air is polluted, there are wild fires every summer. We were interested in understanding how it feels for a teenager to grow up and build your future there,” said Bouzgarrou.
That’s when they found the prison program run by a local NGO that partners each girl with a rescued stray dog, of which there are a growing number in Bakersfield.
“These dogs have been abused, abandoned; they come from the same underprivileged neighborhoods as these girls – there is a mirror effect with these teenagers who have already had a violent past,” said Bouzgarrou. “They open up to the dog with trust and tenderness and become the children they could have been had they not been in such a violent world.”
The complexity, said the filmmakers, is that at the end of the program the dog goes to a home, but the girl is left either in the detention center or to her own devices in a city plagued by violence and gang warfare.
“The reality we want to show may seem harsh,” said Jenkoe, “but our aim is not to show a downfall: we want to catch a glimpse of hope in their struggle.”
Bouzgarrou said they were inspired by the character of Cebe in Dennis Hopper’s “Out of the Blue,” about “a girl who struggles, has a violent history, but has a spark of revolt.”
After their project was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic for a couple of years, the pair have resumed scouting and plan to start shooting in 2023.
Unlike “The Last Hillbilly,” which they built around their main character following a chance encounter in a restaurant, they will be looking to find their characters, with the rehabilitation program as their starting point.
“We have a strong work ethic,” said Bouzgarrou. “We don’t want to just come with our own ideas and shoot, we want to work with them, hand in hand, and write the voice-over with them. We are really committed to this relationship of trust.”
A Films de Force Majeure production, “A Dog’s Life” has received regional and CNC funding in France and is looking for international co-production partners at Visions du Réel.
The festival runs until April 17. The Industry Awards will be announced on April 13.