“The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova” is an awkward film. That might sound like a criticism, but actually it’s the strongest compliment one could give it. The film’s director, Zack Bernbaum, pitched it as an absurdist drama and the film succeeds at telling a strange tale of family duty and forgiveness.
"Dancing Dogs" released in 2018 and will come to the Scottsdale International Film Festival for two showings on Nov. 3 and Nov. 10. It’s Bernbaum’s third feature film and most recent directing credit.
Bernbaum’s production company, Ezeqial Productions, produced the film and he co-wrote the story with screenwriter Michael Whatling.
The movie follows estranged Jewish Canadian siblings brought back together. The brother and sister travel to the tiny town of Dombrova in Poland to honor the wish of their elderly bubbie.
The bubbie’s request: bring back the bones of her old dog, Peter. She had to
abandon him when the Nazis invaded Poland and now she wishes to be buried with the bones. The movie was not filmed in the real Dombrova, but in the Transylvania region of Romania.
Much of the film is inspired by Bernbaum’s grandmother, who is a Holocaust survivor. In fact, Bernbaum’s real 98-year-old bubbie acted in the movie as the ailing grandmother.
“My grandmother was from Dombrova,” Bernbaum said. “She had a dog named Peter and survived a death march from the Nazis. She even gave me the idea for the name of the movie.”
The siblings, Aaron and Sarah Cotler — played by Douglas Nyback and Katherine Fogler, respectively — find themselves surrounded by the strange customs of the Polish village. A cab driver that never speaks, a teen translator who describes himself as a “human detective” and Polish mobsters are just some of the characters that aid or block the protagonists’ quests.
The general premise may make this sound as if it were a classic fish-out-of-water story, but there’s also a quiet sense of surrealism to the film. For example, the Canadian protagonists are the most bundled up to face the freezing temperatures, but all the Dombrova natives only wear one or two layers. The film also lightly uses absurdist humor. Nothing is ever quite what it seems and very few things go according to plan.
But what sells the narrative is the relationship between the Cotler siblings. The actors, Nyback and Fogler, come off as a real bickering brother and sister. The two know exactly what buttons to press, how to cheer each other up and what the other is willing to do for their quest.
“Douglas and I have worked together in the past and he and Katherine are great friends,” Bernbaum said. “They really brought these characters to life and made them their own.”
Through the journey, the complexities of the siblings' personalities are gradually revealed. Aaron is an overly serious bureaucrat that memorizes statistics and numbers for any situation, while Sarah is a carefree and easygoing alcoholic.
The audience isn’t just watching these siblings find the remains of a dead dog; the movie makes it feel like they’re participants. Through the use of long takes and ambient noises the world feels all the more real.
Bernbaum focused heavily on creating the right tone for the movie, because he wanted to make sure the audience could feel what Aaron and Sarah go through. Subsequently, there’s an almost oppressive sense of coldness throughout the movie that has nothing to do with the location.
As Aaron and Sarah wander a frozen wasteland, they find that their presence in this odd town isn’t particularly welcome, something that brings out both the worst and best of the siblings.
“I used the words absurdist drama, because when the tone is crafted well then everyone can really feel like they are truly with these two,” Bernbaum said. “But that also allows the humor in this world to tick more and create an awkwardness that allows the movie to feel real.” JN