SLAMDANCE 2022 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! The Iranian documentary Doggy Love is an uncomfortable look at how dogs are treated in Tehran. Aslan and Yassi run an underground dog shelter outside the city that houses up to 250 animals. Both in their late 30s, Aslan has been in love with Yassi for years. She sees him as a reliable partner at the shelter and as a comrade in arms, but not as a romantic interest. Aslan says he stays for her, but it’s clear he has deep sympathy for the dogs and a dedication to this calling. In fact, when an animal dies, it falls to him to do the burial outside the cinder-block walls of the grim compound. He does so gently and solemnly.
On the surface, it appears documentarian Mahmoud Ghaffari has made a film about dogs. But, the themes of this story go much deeper into other elements of Iranian life under an oppressive regime and the culture that has arisen around it. The official position of the Iranian government (and because Iran is a theocracy, that means religious leaders interpreting the Quran to suit the moment) is that dogs are unclean. As such, having dogs as pets is discouraged. There are city ordinances against walking dogs and against transporting a dog in a vehicle.
“…Aslan and Yassi skirt the laws and risk arrest by looking after the dogs.”
The government even goes so far as to encourage killing the animals by paying a bounty for carcasses. This leads to men killing dogs with impunity in the streets. Ostensibly this is to rid the city of what they see as pests, though it seems like more than that. Stories of abuse and the agonizing deaths of dogs injected with acid suggest a darker motivation. This is a sport of psychopaths.
As such, the subjects of Doggy Love, Aslan and Yassi, skirt the laws and risk arrest by looking after the dogs. Their work at the shelter is a constantly desperate and thankless task. Few people around them understand why they do it. There is never enough space at the animal refuge, so they must periodically take animals from the shelter and dump them away from the city. Food shortages can become so dire that the dogs have been known to prey on each other. In the U.S., it is a challenge to run an animal rescue, but manageable. In Iran, it’s a Sisyphean act of open defiance to the government and the draconian rules of the religious leadership.
"…a Sisyphean act of open defiance..."