Vanity Fair Profiles HUMANITAS Winner Debra Granik's 'Stray Dog'

There’s a lot of Middle of Nowhere in this country, places where Hollywood only comes knocking when it’s time to shoot an apocalypse movie, or some kind of Into the Wild road trip. Producers don’t seem to be meeting around conference tables and saying “let’s make a picture in the backwoods of Missouri, because people live there and things happen.”

But that’s where Debra Granik makes her movies. She shot Winter’s Bone, the disturbingly powerful film that put all eyes on Jennifer Lawrence, in a small town in Missouri where a plot about a family wrecked by meth wasn’t too far-fetched. It was during her time on set there that Granik met Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a biker vet who would become the subject of her documentary Stray Dog.

Stray Dog follows a meandering non-narrative as Ron makes his annual motorcycle ride for veterans from Missouri to D.C. with his Mexican wife Alicia, while he keeps tabs on his trailer park, and helps his recently immigrated stepsons learn English and assimilate to American culture (and its many-colored curse words). It makes for an unexpected documentary in a field of films with specific political and environmental messages. There’s no ominous voice-over here or piercing individual interviews. We just follow Ron and his family for a few months, until we don’t.

When Granik and her crew arrived to start filming, the family ate every meal in the kitchen, and it became a place where many conversations became teaching moments, as Ron explains what “poor people food” is to his stepsons. This food, meat and potatoes and cabbage, doesn’t need hot sauce, he tells the boys as they reach for the Valentina, but adds, if you really want to add it, go ahead.

Granik also pointed out the graphic symbolism of the scene: “Ron wears a lot of animal emblems: biker-culture hats, T-shirts with skeletons in chains, metal motifs, and patriotic shirts with this intense American eagle landing. On the graphic level, it was riveting for me—for someone who likes to look at why things are in the same frame, the art in everyday life, the graphic intensity of everyday life, as well as cooking. The whole thing gels.”

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