New Zealand Film Festival Reviews - Last Dogs of Winter special review

New Zealand Film Festival Reviews - Last Dogs of Winter movie review

I take a look at Costa Botes' new doco The Last Dogs of Winter which received its NZ premiere in Auckland at the mighty Civic theatre.

Garnering its New Zealand premiere in the first week, Kiwi documaker Costa Botes,who's celebrating his 30th year as a filmmaker, brings his latest, The Last Dogs of Winter to the festival circuit.

On paper, it should be a shoo-in - a doco about the northern most tip of the world, with promises of snow blitzed landscapes, eskimo dogs and polar bears. After all, we've already gone gaga on David Attenborough's Frozen Planet earlier this year.

And on screen, I'm happy to report it's more than a shoo-in; it's a totally engrossing spectacle of human(e) proportions

But this is no nature doco and we're not really there to witness the majesty of the white wooly bear as it lollops around its natural environment. (Even though some of those provide the obligatory "Aaaah" moments)

Oh no, Botes has turned his focus (so excellently centred in the last piece of his which I saw Candyman, the David Klein story) to the plight of the Qimmiq dog - or more specifically, the man who's trying to save them - a white haired, leather headband wearing guy called Brian Ladoon.

He lives in the township of Churchill in Canada (population 873 - and the majority of whom are bearded - unless they're women) and has dedicated most of his life to trying to ensure the survival of the Eskimo dog, which is now facing extinction.

Years ago, through a cull, neglect and controlled government programmes, there was a concerted push to get rid of the pooches and as a result only a couple of hundred remain.

Botes' way into this ice-capped world comes from a kiwi perspective; a former actor called Caleb Ross who you will remember from the TV show The Tribe. Ross found himself in Canada for a new love. But as the sun set on that relationship, he suddenly found himself having to start again and tempted by an ad which simply urged him to "Come to Churchill, breed eskimo dogs and see polar bears."

Who's going to refuse that?

But what Botes has managed to do, as he negotiated the wild and sparse landscape of Churchill, is to craft together a doco which offers an incredible insight into a world many of us will only ever glimpse through a lens.

It helps that he has a very affable subject in Ross, who's open to discussions and is perhaps, the younger heir to Ladoon's throne. He's certainly the polar opposite of the occasional spikiness of Ladoon, who it's fair to say, despite his calm exterior to the camera, doesn't get along with all the residents of Churchill. As Ladoon himself says at one point : "It's not everyone's cup of tea - but I don't drink tea."

Botes is also smart enough to know that scenes of dogs, chained in sub-zero wilderness landscapes with cold and wind whipping at their tails is likely to polarise some and cast a shadow on Ladoon's quest, as well as firing comments of mistreatment of the animals.

However, as Ross explains - the dogs are chained for various sensible reasons - including ensuring they don't run away. But, by deftly deferring this argument to someone who works with Ladoon rather than have him refute the claims, Botes' cleverly ensuring that the arguments have coherence, cogency and are rational. It's clever touches like these throughout the film which highlight what he's managed to do - put together a doco which is gentle charming, and gets under your skin without your realising it.

Of course, he's also sensible enough to intercut scenes of interviews with gorgeous shots of winter landscapes, replete with polar bears roaming - and there are certainly plenty of cute animal moments including close ups of the dogs, heads cocked and looking into the camera as well as shots of the polar bears frolicking and playing with each other and with the dogs. It's certainly kryptonite to the animal lovers out there - but what it shows is a snapshot of a life we've been given a fascinating glimpse into and one which is carrying on its vital work regardless of what's around and what nature's got in store in its harsher environments.

I have to admit, I would have loved to have seen a more official response or government feedback to what Ladoon's doing and while the doco's a measured and centred piece with a few people voicing their opposition to what's going on, it is, on the whole, sympathetic to the cause but a little lacking in exploring the divides that Ladoon's apparently created within the community. I'm not sure if it's that people chose not to be interviewed but it's a little disappointing that the contrary viewpoints aren't explored and expanded a little more fully. Even a line on screen explaining why would have steered this audience further and move the naysayers out of the anecdotal and into the fact.

While the doco ends with the possibility of a future for the programme, it's never implicitly implied, leaving the viewer with the ball fully in their court as to whether they wish to pursue this totally valid cause - it's an interesting way to end the piece.

All in all, The Last Dogs of Winter is a sumptuously put together and utterly charming piece which is a feast for the filmgoer and showcases the fact that 30 years on, Botes is still an impressive talent and making film that visually enthralls and mentally stimulates.

Find out more about The Last Dogs of Winter at their Facebook page.

One last note, the premiere last night seguewayed into an interview with Costa and a Skype chat from Caleb in the Wintergardens of the Civic.

Unfortunately, having to rush off to another screening meant I left 15 mins in, but I wanted to commend the festival team for doing this and adding a new dimension to the screening.

Interestingly, Caleb was calling from Churchill which would suggest he's still involved in the quest to save the dogs - but I'd love to know how long he intends to stay and if this is his calling? If you were there, let me know. And maybe in future, for these key events, the festival could look at potentially recording them for posterity?

UPDATE - Costa's very kindly been in touch (which I thoroughly admire and am grateful for his time doing so) to answer a couple of the points I raised above. Here's his response.

"Hi Darren, as promised here are some comments in reply to the various points raised in your piece about my film, The Last Dogs of Winter.

Regarding your specific questions:

I too would have liked to have given some voice to an official response or government feedback about what Brian Ladoon is doing. Unfortunately, neither on a local or state level were they willing to engage with me. Essentially, Ladoon is a headache or a thorn in their side, so they were happier to stonewall me than explain their position. I was able to privately glean some insight about the official policy of wildlife management in Manitoba, and I have to say it's my opinion that this policy is a bit of a mess, mediating various conflicting agendas - wildlife conservancy, indigenous rights, eco-tourism. 

They don't like Ladoon because he does not recognise their authority. On the other hand, their authority does not appear to rest on anything solid. It's ad hoc bureaucracy, really. Not stupendously interesting. And not central to my topic either.

I chose to concentrate on Brian's conflicts close to home, and I think I have given these due weight.

Generally, I don't like filling up my movies with exposition. I'm a film maker, not a journalist. If people want to know more or get a journalistic perspective, that option is open to them. I have placed many links and points of view about this topic on the Last Dogs of Winter blog at my web site -

To me, the point of any good film is simple - to emotionally highlight a simple human truth that can inspire and illuminate the way for other people. The end of this movie essentially celebrates the main character's persistence, and his passionate embrace of life. He's a unique individual, with unique problems, in an interesting unique situation. More than worthy of a filmic treatment.

Finally, to answer your questions about Caleb, yes, he is likely to stay in Churchill for a while longer. How long, I'm sure even he does not know. He still works with Brian, although more in an ad hoc capacity now. But he is committed to helping Brian review and modify his operation, so it evolves from being a subsistence venture, dedicated to simple survival or preservation of blood lines, to a self sustaining economic activity. This could be achieved by establishing a viable volunteer program, so that individuals with a love for these dogs and the outdoors can travel to Churchill and work with them. So that is what Caleb is trying to do. Time will tell how successful he is.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment, Darren. Much appreciated. 

Best wishes,


Well, what can you say to this? Nothing, except, hats off to Costa for a) taking the time to read this blog entry and b) for responding in such an open way to the questions and comments raised. 


  1. I actually own a Canadian Eskimo Dog, and what you just said is completely false. They do have a very thick coat, but not much thicker than an Alaskan Husky, and they can easily be kept outside. They also aren't anymore vicious than any other breed of dog.


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