FILMMAKER OF THE CHAMPIONS
Darcy Dennett majored in film and studied photography at Wesleyan University, has lived and worked in New York City since 1992, and has traveled to over 50 countries.
Her first independent documentary feature The Champions is about the pit-bulls rescued from the notorious dog-fighting ring of NFL’s Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcon’s star quarterback—an unexpected and inspirational story of resilience and the significance of the relationship we as humans have with animals.
In 2013 Dennett produced a high-profile segment in Nigeria, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, for Oprah Winfrey’s landmark international series Belief about belief and religion around the world, slated to air in 2015.
Darcy has worked in photography, film, and television for nearly twenty years on a wide variety of projects, from commercial and corporate work to documentary and television, for networks including HBO, National Geographic, Discovery, A&E, The Food Network, OWN, and has won numerous awards. She directed, produced and wrote five episodes of the OWN series Our America with Lisa Ling, and produced a multi-million dollar advertising-
campaign for HSBC Bank in collaboration with National Geographic that involved travel to over 20 countries and working with some of National Geographic’s best photographers. She was the series producer of National Geographic’s Dogtown, and directed a two-hour special on the pit-bulls rescued from a dog-fighting ring run by the Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback, Michael Vick. It was the highest-rated second-season premiere in network history, with 4.3 million viewers, and was given glowing reviews in both the New York and Los Angeles Times. The series was also nominated for a Genesis Award given by the Humane Society, in recognition of media illuminating animal rights issues.
Darcy majored in film and studied photography at Wesleyan University, has lived and worked in New York City since 1992, and has traveled to over 50 countries.
As a New-York based documentary director producer and cinematographer, I’ve worked on some very interesting projects. I’ve covered heart-breaking topics ranging from the sex trafficking of underage girls in Washington DC and poverty in America, to stories about cultures all over the world, from nomadic tribes in Africa to the jungles of Borneo. I love that I’m constantly learning and that I get the luxury of forming my own opinion first-hand.
In 2008, I was working on National Geographic’s TV series Dogtown and found myself caught up in the drama that would eventually inspire The Champions. As producer of the series, I spent months at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, where their 3,700 acre sanctuary is situated. Through filming countless stories about dogs rescued, I came to understand what Best Friends’ no-kill philosophy means first-hand—that every animal deserves a second chance, no matter what. Founded in the 70s by an idealistic group of friends who dreamed of creating a better world for all creatures, the work of Best Friends spoke to the idealist in me—to the notion that every single one of us has the power to make the world a better place, if only we are willing to try.
While filming the second season, news broke that Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback Michael Vick was implicated in a long-running, illegal dog-fighting ring. The case shone a public light into the shadowy world of dog fighting, where men gather in secret to gamble and force innocent animals to fight to their deaths.
Vick pled guilty to “Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in an Animal Fighting Venture.” He served 23 months in prison. None of this was for animal cruelty. Left behind in the aftermath were over 50 pit bulls. Dogs whose only experience with humans involved fear and brutality. The judicial system had saved them from the fighting ring, but what was our duty to them now? The Humane Society of the United States considered the dogs the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country, and PETA described them as a “ticking time bomb.” Both felt the dogs should be killed.
A few smaller organizations like BADRAP, a San Francisco based pit bull rescue organization, stepped up to take the dogs considered most adoptable. But Best Friends Animal Society agreed to take 22 dogs that no one else could, the dogs many considered the most difficult. Best Friends had taken on many difficult dogs before, but taking 22 dogs that might require sanctuary for life is a challenge for any organization, no matter how well established. It was a big responsibility, and the entire reputation of pit bulls as a “breed” was at stake. We followed Best Friends’ trainers all the way cross country to the East coast, filming the dogs’ first steps towards a new life at the sanctuary. Like many, I imagined that pit bulls rescued from a dogfighting ring would be scary, dangerous, and aggressive.
The media jumped onto the bandwagon, sensationalizing the dogs as “blood-thirsty killers,” but they were telling one side of the story. Most dogs refuse to fight unless they have been subjected to extreme deprivation and cruelty over the course of time. If given mood-altering drugs and then agitated, a dog has a higher chance of lashing out, oftentimes in defense of its own life. But most pit bulls flat out refuse to fight, which in dogfighting rings almost always results in certain death. As noted in the USDA investigative report about the Michael Vick case entitled “Bad Newz Kennels,” dogs who refused to fight or underperformed were routinely killed by one of a number of people who were involved with the ring. According to the report, dogs were shot with a .22 caliber handgun, hanged by nylon cord, electrocuted, or drowned in a 5 gallon bucket of water. According to the report, Vick initially denied killing any dogs himself. However, according to the report: “Vick was administered a polygraph examination by the FBI. Vick failed the examination as it related to the killing of the dogs in April 2007. Ultimately, Vick recanted his previous statement wherein he said he was not actually involved in the killing of six to eight dogs on or about April 19, 2007. Vick admitted taking part in the actual hanging of the dogs.”
There was a growing sense that the dogs were the victims, but in the beginning I was fearful while filming with them. I consider myself to be relatively brave, but it seemed like good common sense to use extreme caution while filming in a closed “run” with a pit bull rescued from a notorious dog-fighting case.
But from the moment we started filming as the pit bulls settled in at the sanctuary, it quickly became clear that for the most part, the dogs were frightened, abused, under-socialized dogs who were completely misunderstood and deserved a second chance. The thing that probably surprised me the most was seeing how incredibly friendly two particular dogs—named Georgia and Lucas—were with people, despite the fact it is thought they were both champion fighters. Despite a multitude of scars on Lucas’ face, all he wanted to do when I went into his run was smother me with kisses.
A small black male named “Cherry Garcia” stands out in my mind more than the others. Cherry was terrified of everything around him. The dog had probably never known a kind gesture or word, the stability of being fed twice a day, the comfort of a warm bed or a toy, or the smallest shred of pleasure. When anyone came near, his body would hit the floor like a soldier under attack. We followed Cherry’s trainers for months, as they worked tirelessly to demonstrate that there was much more to life than just fear. We all hoped for rehabilitation and perhaps one day, adoption for some of the dogs. But if it were possible at all, it would be years away, making it difficult if not impossible to follow. Years passed, and life moved on, though I continued to follow the dogs’ story out of personal interest.
A few years later back home in New York City, I attended a fundraising event organized by Best Friends called “Strut Your Mutt.” A bring-your-own-dog walk along the Hudson River where I enjoyed a stroll with my own dog. As the event drew to a close, I noticed a couple holding a small black pit bull on a leash—tail wagging happily as he interacted with people around him. I recognized that we had filmed with the couple during the course of Dogtown, but it took me a few moments to realize that the dog they had adopted at the end of the leash was Cherry—a pit bull who was once so traumatized that he refused to even walk, given a second chance in life. A small group of admirers had formed a semi-circle around him, eager to meet a star of Dogtown and one of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s property.
“People never change.” But here was Cherry—a dog who had experienced so much trauma, but had learned to trust people and enjoy life. The transformation was beyond anything I could have imagined possible and looking back, through contradictory tears of realization and disbelief, it was in that moment that Cherry inspired me to make “The Champions.” Cherry’s story, and the story of the dogs, had to be told.