When filmmaker and Winthrop native Darcy Dennett saw Cherry, a pit bull with a past so traumatic he was once too afraid to even walk or have any contact with people, she knew she had to tell more of the stories of the dogs rescued from professional football player Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation.
“This is a dog that refused to take any attention from people,” Dennett, a 1988 Winthrop High School graduate, said of Cherry, one of 22 Vick dogs considered to be among the most difficult to rehabilitate. She documented that process in 2008, as part of the former “Dogtown” television program on the National Geographic Channel which focused on the efforts of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
Through intensive work with trainers, Cherry went from avoiding any human contact and being so scared he crawled along the ground instead of walking, to being adopted by a loving family. However, the “Dogtown” series came to a close just after Cherry had been adopted and before many of the other former Vick dogs were adopted as pets. Dennett never got to tell the story of their continued recovery and redemption on the show.
In September 2011, Dennett was at a Best Friends fundraising event in New York City and saw a small black pit bull with a group of people standing around admiring him. She looked more closely and recognized the couple who had adopted Cherry, and then saw Cherry himself basking in the attention of a semicircle of admirers. She said Cherry had clearly learned to trust people and enjoy life despite the trauma he had experienced.
“I found it so moving that he had come that far. I found that incredibly inspirational,” Dennett said. “And it isn’t really just about these dogs, who suffered unimaginable abuse and learned to trust people again. It’s something people can relate to. People are traumatized and you imagine they may never get past it. But if these dogs can do it, what that suggests about people being able to as well was powerful. My resolve to make the film was crystallized in that moment.”
Dennett caught up with Cherry and his owners and several other Vick dogs since adopted as pets and living seemingly happy, normal dog lives and made an award-winning documentary about them, “The Champions.”
The film recently became available for purchase by download after making the film festival circuit
Its only planned Maine screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. next Sunday at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.
Dennett, whose parents, Diane and Charles, still live in Winthrop and whose brother, Devin, lives in Monmouth, plans a trip to Maine to attend the screening of the film.
“I’m so excited about the Railroad Square screening,” she said. “As a kid coming from a tiny town in Maine, as soon as I got my license, I’d drive the 40 minutes to Railroad Square to see these independent films in this dark room. I’m sure that had something to do with me going on to pursue film in college. It’s going to be very emotional.”