Review by Sarah Williams
Life pulsates with a beat that is too imperfect, too often changing, and too isolated. It swells with the sounds of notifications, sirens, and engines revving, but what surrounds those noises is scarcely heard. This is a world manufactured to be ignored, and this is our world. It is the world of Nadia Bedzhanova's mental health odyssey Beware of Dog, which touches on the daily lives of those who live in this world not made for them. The film follows three stories of mental illness interlaced in Berlin, Moscow and New York, showing how universal these experiences are.
Three characters struggle within their own little worlds. Marina (Marina Vasileva) has her life in Moscow overshadowed by obsessive-compulsive disorder, which saps her time, and makes her life with her boyfriend harder and harder. Her cousin Paula (Paula Knüpling) struggles with bipolar disorder in Berlin, and the two find common ground. Mike (Buddy Duress) is the third of this triad, a boxer in New York struggling with addiction after lost love. These connections are made online at first, a juxtaposition with the very physical cities they navigate. All three stories are oceans apart yet the experiences are so alike, a testimony of the universality of struggle. The repetitive nature of OCD is particularly well-depicted, as long stretches of the film pause for Marina to act on her urges. Just like the film pauses, her life and ability to control it is pausing for that time.
Mike’s story is somewhat based on actor Buddy Duress’s real life, and the actor had ended up in jail three times throughout production. Marina’s story also stems from life, based on director Nadia Bedzhanova’s experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder. She says the film is an attempt to poeticize both her story of immigration and OCD. There is so often a disconnect when moving far away, but her film shows that shared experiences can transcend place, and that sometimes struggling, whether with mental health, class, or sexuality, is what brings people together. What’s special about the film is that they feel like ordinary people- the lines are blurred between the actor and character, and it makes it easier for us all to see a bit of ourselves within them.
The film feels like a sensory immersion tank, with layered sound design that feels like the movement of pool water, the chirping of birds, and the whirring of power tools is right beside us. The dialing up of the background noise is a wonderful thematic choice, making us just as overwhelmed as our characters. It’s almost as if we can hear the whole world at once. It’s reminiscent of the documentary All These Sleepless Nights in how it uses this music, synchronizing with synths in the night to give the world an immersive experience. It is bordering on documentary by having some actors play versions of themselves, and by following each of the three young adults through their day-to-day lives, the truths that are exposed feel as real as pure nonfiction.
"It is difficult to determine who you are, where you are, where even is your place in this world," is said during narration that plays during a protest set in Moscow. The narration calls for equality, for understanding, in a moment when the fight for equality is overwhelming to a protagonist. Protest footage from around the world is used, including New York anti-Trump rallies, Catalunya’s pro-independence movement, and a Moscow protest against freedom of speech. Most of this is in the cities that our characters inhabit, but the footage that is not serves to broaden the scope of exactly how worldwide it is. It’s all about the perspective that it brings, this connection from all over the world. Paula ends up with a girlfriend who does not share the same first language as her, but because they both speak English, they are able to connect based on other shared experiences. This is the opposite of Marina and her boyfriend, who live in the same city yet have little in common, and struggle to connect with each other. Perhaps origin is not as important when it comes to matters of the heart, as we all live the same lives in different places.
Beware of Dog debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which ran January 23-30 in Park City, UT.