‘Searchdog’: Palm Springs Review

Courtesy of Lucy Bean Films
One from the heart.

A documentary takes an intimate look at the extraordinary art of K-9 search, rescue and recovery.

At the center of Searchdog, a clear-eyed and exceptionally affecting documentary, is a man with a calling. Combining his passion for justice and love of animals, the plainspoken hero Matthew Zarrella has become a leading expert in a specialized area of crime solving: K-9 search and rescue. In many cases the rescue begins at the local pound, where Zarrella recruits dogs deemed unmanageable, sometimes saving them from euthanasia.

For her debut feature doc, a world-premiere selection at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Mary Healey Jamiel followed Zarrella, a Rhode Island State Police sergeant, on the job and at home for more than four years. Given the gruesome and harrowing nature of the recovery aspect of the work, it would be natural to expect the film to be tough viewing. But while Jamiel addresses the emotional toll of murder and suicide cases, her focus on the symbiotic, enthusiastic sense of purpose between the detectives and their dogs is inspiring, and certain to hit animal lovers where they live.

The director’s approach is as winningly unfussy as that of her protagonist, whose goal is to help dogs realize their “higher purpose” while finding missing people or, in worst-case scenarios, bringing peace to victims’ families. As Zarrella trains a select group of K-9 teams for cadaver-search certification, his biography emerges in succinct fashion, along with the stories of a few of his dogs.

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For starters there’s Ruby, a manic German shepherd-Australian shepherd mix who makes remarkable progress from five-time adoption reject to star pupil. Zarrella’s personal dog, Max, appears memorably in footage of their 2002 mission to Vietnam to search for MIA remains.

Using dolls and Halloween props, Zarrella teaches the dogs to discern stages of decomposition, while his human students essentially forge a new language with their canine partners, attuning themselves to the looks and barks that are meant to alert them. It’s a surprisingly subtle system of communication. And through it all, no matter how stressful or painful the work at hand, the detectives must ensure that the dogs are enjoying the game of finding what’s hidden. Most astounding is the dogs’ ability to pinpoint, from the surface of a body of water, human remains lying in its depths — a skill that Zarrella notes is underused. (With funding for K-9 programs not always forthcoming, volunteers play a key role.)

Moving between new and archival material, the film never lacks energy, but its organization can feel haphazard, and the lack of identifying titles for interviewees occasionally impedes the narrative’s flow. For the most part, though, Jamiel and Ken Willinger, who share d.p. duties, deliver remarkably unobtrusive yet intimate footage, whether they’re tracking a crime investigation or a training drill.

Judiciously used black-and-white animation sequences by Daniel Sousa illustrate a few of Zarrella’s experiences, and their stark elegance suits the material. That’s especially so in a sequence set in the Vietnam jungle, which hauntingly conveys the layers of time and memory embedded in a place.

Through it all, Zarrella, with his dry humor, is a quietly compelling figure. Beyond his profound bond with the dogs is a poignant connection with the missing people he searches for; he wonders aloud whether he’ll meet them in the next life. “It gets you,” he says, acknowledging the low points to which the work has brought him. To help deal with the stress, Zarrella undertook an elaborate ship-model project. Jamiel captures him in his basement, Max at his feet, as he paints and glues the intricate pieces. Tellingly, it’s a model of the Titanic.

Production company: Lucy Bean Film
Director-producer: Mary Healey Jamiel
Executive producer: Elaine M. Rogers  
Directors of photography: Mary Healey Jamiel, Ken Willinger
Editor: Mike Majoros
Composer: Tim Maurice
Sales: East Village Entertainment  

Not rated, 88 minutes