Underdog Documentary Film Review

★★★★

Directed by #FreyjaKristinsdóttir

Documentary Film Review by #JackBottomley




Iceland and its stunning landscapes have graced many a work of cinema over the years. From Batman Begins to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it is a beautiful land that is full of natural wonder and which showcases the impressive sights that express what amazing feats nature can conjure. However, Iceland has a unique, somewhat unexplored, past and director/editor #FreyjaKristinsdóttir’s eye-opening feature debut Underdog not only enlightened me to an issue I never knew existed in the country, it grips you with a moving and powerful story that is an ode to the idea of man’s best friend.


This documentary charts the shockingly complex journey of #HilmarEgillJónsson, a man wanting to relocate from Norway to Iceland with his family but facing an unexpected obstacle: the importation of his beloved English Bull Terrier #Rjómi. As a seemingly by the books application turns into a compelling legal battle that sees an owner and a family stand by their furry friend and in the process challenge a governing body that seems to be in business for itself.


Considering Kristinsdóttir’s background as a vet and animal trainer, it is not hard to see why this story has clearly captured the heart and mind of Kristinsdóttir and her dedication in relaying the twists and turns of this riveting tale yields attention-grabbing results in this fantastic documentary feature. The case is explored, as Jónsson talks us through the frustrating and baffling decisions of Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority MAST and what starts out as an application becomes almost a conspiracy thriller, as this authority seems to take prejudice against the young animal but with no clear explanation as to why.


Kristinsdóttir’s impressive levels of research and her persistent onscreen investigation show her to be a future force to watch in documentary filmmaking, as she backs up all statements with archive evidence, professional talking heads from across the seas and even picks apart the inaccuracies in MAST’s weak and un-backed arguments and allegations.


What seems like such a small issue becomes this grand case before your eyes, as the governing body (on camera) intentionally stonewalls the issue and the deeper we get into the story, the more the film’s real meat is displayed. As Kristinsdóttir remarkably shows us the shocking history of cynophobia in the Icelandic government. A history that, at points, became very fearful, fatal and nasty. A history I knew virtually nothing about. A history with dogs that has only very recently started to heal. This film really is an education as much as it is a rather moving portrayal of what it is to own, love and live with dogs. Additionally it is a testament to how certain breeds have been demonised unfairly by bad owners or even “canine racism” and how it has affected various countries legislation.


This really is a thoroughly engaging watch that is only marred slightly by some inconsistent subtitle text, that occasionally sinks into some of the newspaper article images and can become hard to read. Additionally some highlighted documents are not given english translation and sometimes the subtitling is inconsistently placed. It does not ruin the film and most of the interesting information still gets through but it is worth mentioning, as it does make some moments (especially those covering Iceland’s history in regards to dog ownership) harder to consume.


This minor technical issue aside I absolutely loved Underdog and am eager to see where Kristinsdóttir takes her promising passion for animals next! Because this is an impressive and illuminating debut that also has some brilliant shots (the closing one is really heartwarming) and editing throughout, as well as some well placed moments of music by #KarlÖrvarsson.


Underdog is an inspiring, immaculately researched and compelling film from a talented and promising new documentarian about the persistence to fight for our four legged friends and a country that is overcoming its cynophobic history.