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“Where do you draw the line between villain and hero?” — Andrew Abrahams talks Dog War

7 min read

is an intricate series of snapshots, all depicting their own battles within the war around the dog meat trade in South Korea. Some are generational differences internal to Korea, some are cultural differences between the East and West, and some are as simple as a concerned family who would love nothing more than to have no involvement in either side of it. Our focal points are Jon and Vince, two American ex-soldiers who have made it their mission to put an end to what they believe is a cruel and evil practice, but we also hear several nuanced views from other activists, farmers and restauranteurs along the way.

Just before its world premiere at Film Festival, FILMHOUNDS spoke to director Andrew Abrahams.

I'd love to know a bit about your background, and where this project comes from. Why did it feel important to you?

The name of my company is Open Eye Pictures, and I think for me, that's very significant because I want to open eyes. I want to shine a light on the darker places, the places that aren't being seen. So that's a big part of what I do. When someone came to me about this issue, I'm like, “What? I had no idea.” So I was kind of shocked and I felt I needed to put myself into the position of the viewer, of the ultimate viewer. If I'm shocked, then other people must be too.

So that's one entry point into the film. But it was more than just the issue. I want something else in there. Something that's challenging. Something that, specifically for me, is this clash of ideas. And the title being Dog War, that's very much a clash of ideas. But there's a lot of clashes that are taking place — the clash of the people who are pro-dog meat industry, the people who are against it, and then within that you've got the older generation, the younger generation, you've got the city and the country. And then you have this aspect of the Western mindset and Western ideas and then this specific one in Korea.

So what does that mean in the sort of war of ideas? And so we chose to look at American veterans — Army veterans who've made it their mission to stop the dog meat trade who are in South Korea trying to make that happen. And what that means about cultural differences. So, I'm interested in those ideas that spring forth, but also just the fundamental, the fundamental issue itself. And how do you get that across? How do you open eyes? How do you ask those important questions without making it a black-and-white issue?

Because the activists are American ex-soldiers, it does create an emotional response to see them going out to Korea and saying things like “The Americans are here” etc. Was it ever a concern that you might be building that old narrative of the West going out to save the world in the only way they see fit?

Oh yes. It's very conscious. I remember when I asked Jon that question, and instead of trying to, I don't know, justify it or excuse it, he addressed it right on head-on, and said, “Well, the Americans are here, the Americans are not going anywhere.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. I'm not sure if our audience is ready for that.” But I also made the decision, even though it made me uncomfortable personally, that it was real — and my editor argued to keep it in too. This is not my point of view. This is me presenting some different points of view. Other people in the film and certainly in the audience might have different ideas about that. But, I like asking the questions. I like laying out the territory, and letting the viewer, grapple with some of the questions.

I don't want to misrepresent Jon because there's another quote from him that I thought was really interesting, and it helped me understand why I see dog meat as different to other kinds of meat. He says, “We took dogs and domesticated them. That responsibility should never be forgotten — that we have taken them into our hearts and homes, that we took them out of the wild. And we cannot betray their love, their trust, their loyalty.”

The quote that you just read to me gave me goosebumps. I think that is the crux of it. If you're going to look at this as a film that has some sort of advocacy potential, then that's it. You know, that is the thing that makes it different from everything else. And it's true, it is different. It's not like cows or chickens or even pigs that are very, very intelligent. There is something different when dogs are in cages, even under those circumstances, they still want to play with you. They're still, you know, oriented towards humans, which makes the whole situation more traumatising. And again, people can make up their minds about where they where they draw the line. But, it's not so simple as dogs are just another animal that we're abusing in some way.

There's a dog meat restaurant owner in the film whose father started the business and whose son now works for it. Even though his trade felt so wrong to me, I found some empathy for him when he said “I can't change my job.” Do you see people like him as victims of the changing culture of Korea?

I'm not interested in vilification or demonisation. I can find humanity in most people, personally. I guess it was somewhat challenging being with some people, like our protagonists are saying things like what we just spoke about, “The Americans are here. Americans are not going anywhere.” Their stance is, you know, “Fuck you. You need to stop. You are evil.” They had such strong opinions about this that they were willing to fight and die for it, literally. So that was their perspective. But it's not my perspective. I just keep turning to this, mind frame or this perspective of wanting us all to look at these issues. Where do you place yourself on the spectrum? You know, what is important? What is so important to you that you would die for? Where do you draw the line between villain and hero?

Well, another line that stuck out to me was “You keep a dog in your house and send your parents to nursing homes,” I wondered if you had a take on that?

Well, we see it's a Korean issue not just a war between the West and the East. This is very clearly an issue within the society itself. I think there's some validity in that, that you put your parents in a nursing home, and you put all your love into animals instead. I know people who are great animal lovers but they're not great humanists, and I've seen that among the protesters too.

We see it's a family issue as well once we're introduced to Jon's son, and we hear about how his family want him to stop going out to Korea and doing this. Was there any hesitation from the family about being included in the film?

I would have loved to have interviewed his wife, but his wife didn't want to be interviewed. She was so angry at him for what he was doing and the risk that he was putting himself in, that she just didn't want to have anything to do with it. And to me, that's another thing that's really interesting and that's another aspect of the war. These clashes that all emanate from this one issue. So I really wanted to include that, and I kept asking him. She won't be here at the premiere, but he will.

The interview with Jon's son was probably one of my favourite segments, actually. He's the one of the only voices in the film who is neither an activist or someone involved in the dog meat trade, and there was something grounding about hearing from someone who's just worried about his dad's safety. There's another story, though, where a dog farmer talks about how his son worried that he might turn their pet into meat. That must have been difficult to hear?

I think you're hitting on something here which is the human point of view, and that human point of view can be present anywhere. Whether it's from the son or whether it's from Jon engaging in some questionable practices that are hurting other people. Or whether it's the dog farmers and the vendors, we can always find humanity. I don't want to flatten everything so that in the end we have a film that's just like everything is equal. I also think that it's important to make points, create change and move towards being more and more humane. Ultimately, the dog meat trade is not a humane practice.

Dog War premiered at Raindance Film Festival on Sunday 23rd June