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IDFA 2020: Sheltered

19 November 2020

Framing cats and docs                                                              Saskia Gubbels' Sheltered

The Amsterdam Animal Shelter featured in Saskia Gubbels' Sheltered is more than your average pet sanctuary, the director explains to See NL, rather a "circle of life." The film is selected for IDFA 2020 Dutch Competition.

It is obvious that Dutch director Saskia Gubbels is an animal lover, telling of a happy pet-filled childhood that segued into an equally blissful domestic set-up with her own kids (and cats). It's not surprising therefore that the folk that she films in her feature doc Sheltered are an equally dedicated bunch when it comes to dealing with creatures on four legs.

"The largest animal shelter in the Netherlands is much more than a shelter, it is a mini society but focused on animals, with a grooming salon, veterinarian, physiotherapy, behavioural therapists, team aftercare, team socialization and a medical team," says Gubbels.

"While walking around the shelter I saw, at the back of the building, a transport coming in with 30 neglected and abused animals, inside I saw people who were saving a cat's life and people crying next to a dead dog, and at the front very happy people with their adopted animal. So it was this circle of life that fascinated me. A small world in one building, with extremes."

But human nature, of course, has a sickening flipside, and the reason why many of the animals are in the sanctuary is because they have been subjected to horrendous brutality by their owners, such as the cat that has to be put to sleep because the skin on one side of its body has been flayed, or the 9-month old dog forced to produce a litter of puppies to meet market demand. "I saw a world that is a reflection of human cruelty and that's what I wanted to show," Gubbels underlines.

Gubbels articulates a particular benefit of filming animals - you never have to ask their permission to point your lens in their direction. "When I started this film I became aware that while filming I never had to be afraid that an animal would say to me, 'fuck off with your camera, are you here again? I don't want to be filmed anymore, go away.' So I would definitely recommend filmmakers to make a film about dogs once in your life, it gives you enormous freedom!"

Whether for reasons of size or variety, or that they fill a larger emotional space in humans than other pets, it is dogs who are the star of the show. Canines are, in the main, what most prospective owners come in to see. It is dogs that make for great cinema when they are being trained for pet readiness, or when they gaze dolefully into the camera. And sadly, it is their eventual death, be it by illness or behaviour-motivated euthanasia, which pulls most at the heartstrings, whether those of the audience, the staff in the shelter or indeed the filmmaker herself.

"Intellectually I understand very well why he [one of the dogs in the film, no spoilers] couldn't live anymore, as he is a danger to society, but it's so clear he doesn't want to die," says Gubbels. "He's fighting for his life. It makes me very sad when I think that he had to die because we humans cannot handle these types of dogs that need specific care, specific training, specific attention. And if you as an owner know exactly what these types of dogs need, if you are able to 'read' your dog,  it does not have to get out of hand - and that's a sad conclusion to this death."

That said, such small tragedies have an upside from a filmmaking perspective. "If I get emotional while filming I am very happy about it," the director concludes. "Then I know that it also affects the viewer."

For further reading: 
-> SEE NL Magazine Online, November 2020 / IDFA Doc issue 
-> Line-Up Dutch Docs At IDFA 2020 
-> Watch: Showreel Dutch Documentaries IDFA 2020

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