Ron Hall, is the man behind the title of the documentary Stray Dog, which was the winner of the Best Documentary Feature in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. One of the strengths of this documentary portrait about Ron “Stray Dog” Hall is that the filmmaker Debra Granik (director of Winter’s Bone), dissolves into the woodwork and allows Stray Dog’s life, perceptions, sagacity and loving nature to “imprint” the film with reality, humanity and purpose. She’s done a terrific job of showing the inner soul of a Vietnam vet in a no holds barred look at sorrow and the courage to heal.
When Granik introduces us to him early on, we recognize that Stray Dog is a biker wearing the typical “uniform” (beard, leather, chains, black T-shirt, etc.), and sporting his appendage Harley that has become a signature of his way of life to freely “breeze down highways.” Yet, the director shatters our notions about bikers so that after she unfolds the continuing scenario of this fine portrayal, we understand that this working class Vietnam vet has a heart of gold and is kind, knowledgeable and generous. Amidst the apparent toughness there is a great sensitivity. Like many veterans, Ron Hall is on the front lines with stalwart “wounded warriors’ who are still dealing with a war that time forgot and some of us would like to bury. It is a war that is pounded into their consciousness every time another young man from a current war is shipped home in a body bag and a memorial is held for him that Stray Dog and his buddies attend.
As the owner of a very small RV Park where he lives in Branson, Missouri with Alicia, his Mexican-American wife whom he recently married, and their three dogs, Stray Dog daily carves out a new life for himself in the hope of gaining confidence, self-love and self-forgiveness; it is a struggle. Through Granik’s “slice of life” vignettes and coverage of events (the Vietnam vets’ biker ride from Branson to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., guidance conversations with homeless or struggling vets, his granddaughter and daughter who are working at minimally paying jobs, going to Mexico to bring Alicia’s sons to the United States, etc.), we understand that Stray Dog is reconciling his identity and worth as he renegotiates his past. Granik’s amazing revelation in this film is letting us see Stray Dog’s hope as he moves through the present, forging a sustainable future for himself and his community of family, friends and neighbors, many of whom are bikers from his church and some of whom are networking bikers and vets around the nation.
During the film Granik apprises us of Stray Dog’s lifestyle and how his handle is befitting a citizen who has a different way of “putting down roots” as a “stray.” His foundation has been dug deep into a Christian way of being reinforced by the Biker Church of Branson. This way is contrary to political images of Christianity conjured up as a convenient way to “turn off” everyone who would not be brainwashed by ideologies and preyed upon by politicians who least adhere to Christian tenets though they readily mouth them to garner votes. Granik’s documentary power is in revealing without preaching that Stray Dog’s Christianity is visceral and organic. His faith has also been a vital tool in helping him deal with life’s issues in ways that are not self-destructive, but are affirming, uplifting and socially inclusive.
The irony of his “being” is contrasted subtly (this is implicit), with the culturally political Christian who advocates various positions for others. One cannot help but infer the contrast because Stray Dog is “the real deal,” and there is nothing “glossy,” self-aggrandizing or hypocritical especially when we note his actions, helping a widow or a homeless vet. There is little that is political about his faith; indeed, he is the antithesis of the “political conservative Christian” in his views and attitudes which run counter to what is typically that stance. Once again Granik shatters our assumptions and dispels our stereotypes.
By letting Stray Dog “live his life” onscreen, Granik allows him to be unabashedly honest and forthright, a powerful element of the film. For it is clear that his and Alicia’s faith, and the cohesion of the veteran’s association and the Biker Church of Branson have helped this Vietnam vet get to the next day, the next week and month and year; get through the nightmares, through the psychological inner warfare, through the boredom of a civilian life, through the wheel and woe of economic minimalism. The unspoken fact we witness is that he and his buddies are making it and we cannot help but be happy, because we also recognize that on the opposite side of the coin, there are other veterans and soldiers who are overwhelmed. They are not seeking the help they need. Instead, they are in an alienated hell of their own: on drugs or homeless or emotionally isolated, having allowed the misery of remembrance and the psychological thermite of PTSD to blow apart any semblance at a “normal” life. In allowing a panorama of the truth of who Stray Dog is to speak to us, Granik implies another truth; in an increasing number of instances the after shocks of PTSD have led “wounded warriors” to take their own lives or the lives of others. This is a tragic waste of life in the aftermath of the wars our soldiers have fought and continue to fight.
Why should anyone on the East or West Coast be interested in this individual’s struggles, reconciliations for inner peace and cultural folk wisdom? Most probably because Ron Hall is one of the finest representatives of what the hopes and perceptions of US citizens are across this country today. Like all of us who are growing up in whatever age group, whether or not we show it or know it, we can learn from Ron Hall’s spirit of hope. We can understand that it is possible to come back from a profound darkness and pain and work through to continually strive to achieve inner health, despite the daily frustrations and difficulties. With his earthy nature, droll sense of humor, faith and the energy of his community involvement, Stray Dog has fought and will continue to fight the good fight.
Granik’s salient editing of the various facets of his life, coupled with his commentary and shots of on-going daily realism may be likened to a mentoring experience for us in how to live. Her choices are spot on for in her vision, what is most important drowns out the things that do not last and this brings us to the heart of things: our shared humanity. Who doesn’t wrestle with the inner abyss of self as it clashes with the culture and life’s ups and downs? This lesson Stray Dog teaches is a lesson well learned: we need to love and forgive ourselves, despite the reality of believing we don’t really deserve such grace. Through Ron Hall’s experiences vividly examined by Granik in her riveting “slice-of-life” film, we understand that learning love and self-forgiveness is an ongoing, lifelong process. Granik has made us care about this stray dog in her amazing portraiture. That is because we see that this biker is just like us, even though he is a world away.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00498YZH8,B000I0QL7I]