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Cannes Hidden Gem: Animal-Human Relationships Are Put to the Test in ‘Dog on Trial’

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A dog is not the same as a table, right? Wrong, at least in the eyes of the law.

Traditionally, judicial systems around the world have recognized two kinds of entities — persons and things — and regarded animals as things. Man’s best friend is no exception. That’s true nearly everywhere, including in Switzerland, which serves as the setting for Dog on Trial (Le Procès du Chien), the directorial debut from Swiss-French actress and writer Laetitia Dosch. (Switzerland is this year’s country of honor at the Cannes Film Market.)

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Premiering in Un Certain RegardDog is a bittersweet comedy about a spirited young female attorney, Avril, and her client, Cosmos, a charismatic pup that goes on trial for biting three people. If convicted, Cosmos will be put to death, a very real fate for both wild and companion animals who run afoul of human rules — and one of the more acute aspects of the fraught animal-human relationship.

“Dogs are, for me, the most wonderful companions that we can have, and we are very lucky to have them,” says Dosch, who grew up in a big family surrounded by animals. “We kind of built them this way, and we have changed them [over] 40,000 years. We changed them little by little to make them exactly what we need, very full of love. I’m kind of ill at ease with that idea, so I don’t have a dog, I can’t have a dog. But I love dogs so much, so for me [the relationship between dogs and humans] is ambiguous.”

Dog is not the story of any one dog. Rather, it’s a composite tale that explores the legal and philosophical question of animal personhood, what it would mean if animals had specific rights and the ways in which societies demand conformity — from both people and animals. 

Dosch based the film on several real cases in which dog owners were tried for the actions of their animals, including one that went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. 

“What was very interesting for me is the impact it had on the town” in one of the cases, Dosch explains. “People got very passionate about this story; there were demonstrations, there were petitions. So people got very involved in this story, and I found it very meaningful, because if people got very involved that means that there is something in our society that [the issue speaks to].”

The law regards animals as things, Dosch says, “that’s why we can eat them, that’s why we can kill them when they are dangerous. We destroy them, we don’t really kill them [from a legal] point of view.” 

Laws around what animals are have only recently begun to evolve. Some countries, such as France, Brazil, and the U.K., now recognize animal sentience, meaning that animals can feel fear and pain, as well as positive emotions, such as excitement and joy. But many countries — like the U.S. — still do not.

The film will not only be of interest for a potential Palm Dog award, but also for other animal lovers and friends.

“I asked myself, ‘What if a dog would not be a thing anymore, but someone? How would justice cope with that?’” Dosch says. “That was very funny and at the same time, it’s raised a lot of questions, because they’re not individuals as humans are — it’s not the same. So what are they? There’s a void here, and when there is a void, there is passion.” 

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