PTHS alum premieres 1st film at Tasveer Film Fest

Spent three years living in India to make ‘Pariah Dog’

Posted 10/3/19

Port Townsend’s influence on the world of filmmaking isn’t limited to the Film Festival.

Jesse Alk moved to Port Townsend in the fourth grade and graduated from Port Townsend High School in 1992, and Sept. 29 marked the Washington state premiere of his first film, “Pariah Dog.”

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PTHS alum premieres 1st film at Tasveer Film Fest

Spent three years living in India to make ‘Pariah Dog’

Posted

Port Townsend’s influence on the world of filmmaking isn’t limited to the Film Festival.

Jesse Alk moved to Port Townsend in the fourth grade and graduated from Port Townsend High School in 1992, and Sept. 29 marked the Washington state premiere of his first film, “Pariah Dog.”

For Alk, getting screened at the 14th Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in Seattle is the culmination of five years of work, including living in India for three years, to capture the nuances of a unique culture, and tell stories of outsiders, both humans and animals, who are otherwise overlooked.

“I didn’t see other films that were showing Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) the way I saw it,” said Alk, who filmed “Pariah Dog” as a profile of four lonely people in Bengali society, who take in the roaming, self-domesticated dogs who are known as “Indian pariah dogs.”

“The dogs are native to those areas, so they’re not stray dogs, but as urban environments have been built up so intensely around them, they’ve taught themselves to be around people.”

By exploring the dogs’ relationships with humans, Alk sought to focus on the desire for companionship that the dogs and humans share in common, as well as on the existential questions and suffering of the people who take in the dogs.

“There’s a lot of wondering about why they don’t feel fulfilled,” said Alk, whose film school studies at UC Santa Cruz and UCLA, with a summer stint at NYU, led him to Los Angeles.

Alk himself felt less than fulfilled in L.A., where “I was working three different jobs I hated” and making little progress toward the filmmaking aspirations that had led him to move to the city in the first place.

Alk’s father had been a filmmaker, and one of his father’s filmmaking partners took him to visit Kolkata in 2010.

“It’s a special place,” Alk said. “There’s a lot of challenges to living there, but there’s also a lot of humor and love of life.”

Alk was offered a chance to stay temporarily in Kolkata, with the family of the person who would become his film’s executive producer, for what Alk initially anticipated would be a six-month on-site shoot, so after a few more trips to the area in 2013 and 2014, he quit all his jobs, gave up his apartment, packed up his belongings in storage, and went to live in Kolkata for what would become the next three years.

“I’d been saving up from working for 70 hours a week,” Alk said.

“I don’t want to say how much money I spent on this film, but I had enough money to make a down payment on a house. I applied for a ton of grants, none of which I got, and I cashed out my 401K.”

While Alk’s original intent had been to spend most of the film studying the dogs themselves, with relatively little dialogue, this shifted as he became more acquainted with the local culture, about which he now admits he’d harbored some misconceptions.

This also led to Alk’s local shooting crew becoming more akin to collaborators in making the film with him, to the point that, by the time he’d logged 165 hours of footage that needed to be winnowed down into a viewable form, he returned from L.A. to Kolkata to regain the benefits of their perspective in the editing process.

“There are pariah dogs in every Indian city, but as I went along, Kolkata became a fifth character in the film, after the four people I was profiling,” Alk said.

“Urban space in India is different than it is in the West,” Alke said. “It naturally incorporates more animals and trees. I was hypnotized by it, and by the experiences of these people I met. What I’d originally intended to do was much smaller, but by my first year in, I knew I would do whatever I needed to finish this film.”

This included coming up with two new profile subjects after his first six months of filming, after two of the people he’d begun profiling had to drop out.

When he was still considering whether or not to start making this film, what ultimately spurred Alk on was his friend’s offer of a place to stay in Kolkata, “because I never would have forgotten that offer, if I hadn’t taken them up on it,” and now that he has a finished film to show for his efforts, he’s been surprised and gratified by the positive reception it’s received.

“The film premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won Best Feature,” Alk said. “We’ve been well received by film festivals in Krakow, Newburyport and Azerbaijan, and I’m heading back to India to show it there. Two Kolkata filmmakers actually said it was a Bengali film in its construction, which is the highest praise I could ask for.”

Although “Pariah Dog” has only been slated for one screening in Washington state, you can find out more about it at pariahdogmovie.com.

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