New York-based film-maker Sally Rowe tells Sharon Stephen­son what in­spired her to track down a re­tired dog whis­perer, in heart­land New Zealand

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New York in the au­tumn can be cold. Not wrap-your­selfin-lay­ers-of-merino cold, but the kind of tem­per­a­tures that re­quire a de­cent coat. Sort of like the ca­nary yel­low one Kiwi film-maker Sally Rowe wears through­out our in­ter­view.

“Sea­sons in New York go from ridicu­lously hot to freez­ing, with very lit­tle in be­tween,” says Rowe, who’s lived in Man­hat­tan since 2004.

But the in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tor/writer, who sounds as though she’s in­cu­bat­ing sev­eral viruses, hasn’t given up her Fri­day evening to chat about the weather. She’s here to talk about her sec­ond doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, Old Dog, a 66-minute love let­ter not only to New Zealand’s un­sung he­roes — work­ing dogs — but also to Paul Soren­son, a re­tired farmer and dog whis­perer who’s spent more than 40 years try­ing to give th­ese an­i­mals a bet­ter life.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to make a film about ru­ral New Zealand,” says Rowe in an ac­cent that still holds mainly Kiwi vow­els. “I grew up on a 500ha farm in the Ran­gi­tikei that’s been in my fam­ily for 101 years and I come back ev­ery year to visit. I’ve barely got off the plane and I’ll be in gum­boots, feed­ing out on the trac­tor with Dad.”

But on her an­nual vis­its to New Zealand, Rowe, 50, started to no­tice some­thing dif­fer­ent — the fam­ily farms of her child­hood were chang­ing. “It’s a beau­ti­ful way of life that seems to be dis­ap­pear­ing as sheep farms are con­verted to dairy pas­tures and younger, would-be farm­ers are priced out, some­times by large com­pa­nies or syn­di­cates.”

Keen to tell a story about that world be­fore it changed for­ever, she cast about for a suit­able in­ter­view sub­ject. Rowe’s un­cle told her about Soren­son, one of the coun­try’s most re­spected dog tri­al­lists who’s of­ten re­ferred to in hushed tones as the pa­tron saint of work­ing dogs.

“To watch Paul in ac­tion is amaz­ing. He un­der­stands th­ese dogs and ap­pre­ci­ates the work they do as the back­bone of our ru­ral econ­omy. And he can read a dog like no one else. I’ve watched him line up six dogs he’s known for five min­utes and he’ll ac­cu­rately pre­dict how each of them will be­have.”

Here’s some­thing you might know about work­ing dogs: there are two types, head­ing dogs which stare down the sheep and cat­tle, and the more com­mon hunt­away, a mid-sized mixed breed, usu­ally black and tan, trained to move live­stock by bark­ing and “get­ting in be­hind”. They’re both smart, ca­pa­ble an­i­mals and most sheep and cat­tle farms couldn’t sur­vive with­out them.

Here’s some­thing you might not know: for years, farm­ers “trained” th­ese dogs with anger and vi­o­lence, treat­ing them badly and cru­elly dis­pos­ing of them when they didn’t per­form. Seven min­utes and three sec­onds into Old

Dog, for ex­am­ple, there’s a grainy black and white clip, prob­a­bly lifted from the 70s, that makes me avert my eyes. In it, a farmer vi­ciously strikes and drags his work­ing dog along a sun-baked gravel road. It lasts for only a few sec­onds but, as the an­i­mal’s pained cries echo around the room, I want to cry too.

Soren­son clearly felt the same, be­cause as a young shep­herd he re­alised there had to be an­other way.

“A farmer once said to me, ‘I’m go­ing to shoot that dog’ and I told him I’d like to shoot him,” says Soren­son, by phone from the Firth of Thames where he and his wife Honey re­tired five years ago. “If you’ve got a prob­lem dog, nine times out of 10 ei­ther you’ve cre­ated it or some­one else has. I wanted to find a smarter, more in­tu­itive train­ing method for farm­ers, be­cause when you look af­ter the dogs a bit bet­ter, they’ll re­lax and do their jobs and the farmer will re­lax. And those dogs will have a damn sight bet­ter life than they would have had.”

As one gruff farmer in­ter­viewed in Old Dog ad­mits, Soren­son was al­ways ahead of his time. “It takes a spe­cial per­son to go against the grain and that was Paul.”

In­stead, the now-70-year-old’s ap­proach is to go in­side the dog’s head, us­ing whis­tle com­mands and com­pas­sion, not hands and boots, to get the job done. “If you haven’t got a bond and trust with a dog, you haven’t got any­thing.”

Sur­pris­ingly Soren­son, who reg­u­larly ap­peared on TV’s much loved A Dog Show from 1977 un­til 1992 and has a cab­i­net of tro­phies to show for his suc­cess, has never charged for his ser­vices.

“Paul has trav­elled around New Zealand hold­ing sem­i­nars and pass­ing on his knowl­edge but he doesn’t do it for the money or fame,” says Rowe. “He does it be­cause dogs have given him so much and he wants to hon­our that.”

Soren­son had pre­vi­ously been ap­proached by other doc­u­men­tary-mak­ers, but Rowe man­aged to win him over be­cause of her ru­ral back­ground.

“Sally might live in New York, but she

Some­one told me their shoul­ders dropped watch­ing it, be­cause the beau­ti­ful New Zealand land­scape was an im­me­di­ate stress re­lief.

Sally Rowe

grew up on a farm and she un­der­stands how im­por­tant th­ese dogs are to New Zealand’s econ­omy,” says Soren­son. “That’s why I trusted her to tell this story.”

IT’S NOT just a story about cute dogs with trea­cly brown eyes. It’s also the story of a com­plex man with a dicky knee and a dif­fi­cult life. There’s Soren­son’s King Coun­try child­hood: fa­ther cleared out early, leav­ing his mother to raise him and two younger sib­lings. Money was tight but love wasn’t, and some­how his mother al­ways found room for the stray dogs he brought home.

Soren­son was 14 when he lost in­ter­est in school, go­ing shep­herd­ing on a re­mote 11,000ha high coun­try farm.

“I was liv­ing on my own with no fridge or elec­tric­ity and was so young I didn’t know how to look af­ter my­self prop­erly. One day my tongue swelled up and I got re­ally sick. I know what it’s like to be lonely and hun­gry.”

The one con­stant was dogs. “The other blokes on the farm were 20 years older than me, so the work­ing dogs and the pig dogs be­came my friends. I’ve had some good mates in my life but I’ve had bet­ter mates who were dogs.”

Later there was mar­riage to Honey (“If Paul could read me like he reads those dogs, we’d have a pretty good re­la­tion­ship,” she jokes) and two sons, Kelly and Gene. Soren­son ad­mits he wasn’t around for much of their child­hood, that he gen­er­ally prefers dogs to peo­ple.

“He was scary when we were grow­ing up,” ad­mits one of this sons on cam­era.

If you haven’t got a bond and trust with a dog, you haven’t got any­thing.

Paul Soren­son

For Rowe, mak­ing the film was a de­li­cious deep dive into nos­tal­gia, of the pie/gum­boots/ lam­ing­ton dog tri­als of her youth. While film­ing one dog trial, a woman asked her if she re­ally was from New York. “You don’t look like it,” said the woman, cast­ing a judge­men­tal eye over Rowe’s Swan­ndri.

Tog­gling be­tween the US and New Zealand also pre­sented its chal­lenges, with Rowe cross­ing the Pa­cific 10 times dur­ing the five years it took to com­plete the doc­u­men­tary.

“I’d call Paul to see what dog tri­als he had com­ing up and plan film­ing around that. It wasn’t al­ways easy but we made it work,” she says, from the liv­ing room of the 12th floor mid-town Man­hat­tan apart­ment she shares with hus­band Ben Breen, an Amer­i­can clas­si­cal vi­o­lin­ist.

ROWE IS used to mak­ing it work. Hav­ing a ru­ral up­bring­ing was fan­tas­tic for her horse-rid­ing and trac­tor-driv­ing skills, but didn’t pro­vide much in the way of ex­po­sure to the arts. A friend in­tro­duced her to for­eign films as a teenager and she was hooked.

“There’s some­thing about vis­ual sto­ry­telling, of es­cap­ing to other worlds, that I love. I be­came in­ter­ested in not just ex­plor­ing but in cre­at­ing those other worlds.”

First, though, she logged time com­plet­ing a hair­dress­ing ap­pren­tice­ship in Welling­ton with the late Derek Elvy. She en­joyed it but knew it wasn’t where she would set­tle for life. Travel came next, from Eu­rope to Asia, where Rowe ended up crew­ing on yachts.

While liv­ing in Bangkok, a friend told her about a lo­cal press con­fer­ence for Nat­u­ral Causes, a film star­ring Ali McGraw. Know­ing she wanted to work in film, but not sure how to break into the in­dus­try, Rowe bowled up to the event and asked for a job.

As th­ese things of­ten hap­pen, she was hired, first as a PA, then as a stand-in and even­tu­ally as an ap­pren­tice film ed­i­tor. When the film she was work­ing on wrapped, Rowe was sent to Los An­ge­les for six months to fin­ish edit­ing it.

“Some­one sug­gested I should go to NYU to do the film course, so I ap­plied and got in.” There fol­lowed years of hus­tle, days spent work­ing her way up the film in­dus­try food-chain, nights wait­ing ta­bles and mak­ing cock­tails.

Rowe’s big break came in 2003 when she was hired as a script su­per­vi­sor on Chap­pelle’s

Show, the suc­cess­ful com­edy pro­gramme fronted by co­me­dian Dave Chap­pelle which ran for three years. In her down­time, she pro­duced pro­mos for MTV.

But the de­sire to make her own films was al­ways on the pe­riph­ery and Rowe spent al­most nine years writ­ing, film­ing and edit­ing her first doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, A Mat­ter of Taste, about cel­e­brated New York chef Paul Liebrandt. Not only was it picked up by Amer­i­can cable net­work HBO, it was also nom­i­nated for an Emmy.

Although Rowe didn’t end up tak­ing the cov­eted golden stat­uette home, she says it was an hon­our just to be nom­i­nated. “It takes a vil­lage to make a film and ev­ery­one put their heart and soul into A Mat­ter of Taste, so to have it recog­nised in that way was won­der­ful.”

She’s hop­ing for sim­i­lar suc­cess with Old Dog: so far it’s been shown at the Sara­sota Film Fes­ti­val and has screen­ings com­ing up at fes­ti­vals across the US. Is Rowe sur­prised that a film set in the re­motest rolling hills of New Zealand has proved such a suc­cess State­side?

“Some­one told me their shoul­ders dropped watch­ing it, be­cause the beau­ti­ful New Zealand land­scape was an im­me­di­ate stress re­lief. Amer­i­can au­di­ences have also said they had no idea about work­ing dogs or the way sheep are rounded up. But mostly peo­ple just love this gen­tle story about a man and his love of dogs.” OLD DOG IS AVAIL­ABLE ON ITUNES.

Film-maker Sally Rowe.

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