'Buddy': Film Review | IDFA 2018

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
A tender tribute to tail-wagging treasures.

The latest in the long career of Dutch documentary eminence Heddy Honigmann proved an audience favourite at the Amsterdam non-fiction showcase.

Man's best friend receives a cinematic pat on the head in Buddy, the latest documentary by veteran Peru-born Dutch director Heddy Honigmann. Observing how six service dogs provide crucial daily help and companionship for their grateful owners, the ruminative, accessible affair proves as soothing to the viewer as the faithful pets are to their humans. Honigmann's productions generally earn their keep via domestic theatrical and small-screen exposure plus non-fiction festivals abroad, and the universal appeal of her engaging canine protagonists should ensure this one ends up among her more widely-distributed productions.

The picture unsurprisingly clicked with the public when world-premiering at IDFA in Amsterdam, where it ended up in the top 10 of the audience award. Among a crowded field of 194 candidates, it even finished ahead of the festival's big dog-oriented breakout Los Reyes (international sales on both are handled by "CAT&Docs," aptly enough). The latter takes a fly-on-the-wall, observationally detached approach to its four-legged stars; Honigmann opts for a much more participatory role, addressing gently probing questions to half a dozen people in the Netherlands who rely on their assistance animals for daily tasks.

Aided by the fluent, unobtrusive editing of the experienced Jessica de Koning, whose numerous credits include foreign-language film Oscar winner Character (1997), Honigmann moves back and forth between the six dogs over the course of 86 minutes, showing the animals in action and in repose. It's a simple recipe — a nice film about nice people and their lovely dogs — but one that pays regular dividends in terms of quietly accumulated insight and interludes of touching sweetness.

Several of the owners speak of the "special contact" that makes the connection between service animals and people even deeper and stronger than that involving non-working pets: a veteran sorely traumatized by PTSD relies heavily on lively gray furball named Mister for his sense of physical security; 10-year-old Makker provides the eyes for his octogenarian owner blinded some seven decades before by a World War II explosion; frisky blond Kaiko shows off especially dazzling skills around the kitchen.

Honigmann's conventional, middle-of-the-road style makes for a pleasant if formally familiar viewing experience: Florencia Di Concilio's score includes passages of elegiac slow piano, underlining the tender gentleness of the human/canine relationships depicted. Now in the fourth decade of a varied directorial career which began back in 1985 with co-directed fictional feature The Door of the House, Honigmann — now 67, and recipient of retrospectives at prestigious international venues for well over a decade — oversees matters with a seasoned, safe-hands professionalism. Crucially, her warm sensitivity as an interviewer is palpable, earning the trust of her two-legged and four-legged subjects alike.

Production company: VOF Appel&Honigmann
Director-screenwriter: Heddy Honigmann
Producer: John Appel
Cinematographer: Adri Schrover
Editor: Jessica de Koning
Composer: Florencia Di Concilio
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Dutch Competition)
Sales: CAT&Docs, Paris

In Dutch
86 minutes