Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Welcome to the world of dog sled running. Once a year, when the Bering sea is completely frozen, dozens of sled teams set out to race across the Alaskan wilderness in what is known as the Iditarod, each pitting one human and 16 dogs against the elements. This documentary follows one of those teams - one which faces an extra challenge because its leader is legally blind.

At least, that's what it says on the tin. In fact, young Rachel's blindness, which she's pleasantly pragmatic about, is the least of her problems. She's put at much more of a disadvantage by her selfishness and general immaturity, combined with a certainty that she always knows best. The tactile relationship she has with her dogs – part pointer, because she insists they're better than pure-bred huskies, something every other competitor disagrees with – inspires them to show her tremendous affection. She's the sort of commander whose loyal troops would follow her anywhere, and whose determination to win at all costs would lead them to their doom.

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On the one had, it's refreshing to see a film about an impaired person that doesn't always try to present her in the best light, and that doesn't make excuses for her (even her parents say they get tired of her 'poor little me' act). On the other hand, Rachel is an intensely annoying person with whom to be stuck for an hour and a half, and out in the icy wilderness there's not much in the way of distraction. Whilst it's important that the film itself be enough of a slog to help us identify with Rachel's internal struggle and the physical challenges she faces, it repeats itself too often and relies too much on a charisma its subject doesn't have. There's also a disappointing lack of background information. Rachel's form of visual impairment is a rare one – she has no cones in her retinas – yet we only get a brief, rather misleading glimpse of how this makes the world look to her. The fascinating background of the Iditarod itself is never mentioned and we learn very little about the dog breeding business Rachel's family are involved in.

Some viewers will find this film distressing because of the suffering of several of its canine stars. Rachel's attitude towards them is frustrating – childish cooing accompanied by an apparent refusal to be realistic about their abilities and needs – but, it has to be said, they really do seem to enjoy participating in the race, at least in the early stages. They're working animals in a part of the world where dog sleds can still be a vital form of transport. It's a shame this isn't conveyed more effectively.

Towards the end, the familiar narrative form of the film breaks down when Rachel's team encounter one disaster after another, and it's here that it finally starts to show some real potential. It becomes less about a race for victory and more about the lessons that can be learned from the experience itself. It's just unfortunate that we take so long to get there. In the meantime there are a lot of beautiful landscapes but not much else.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2009
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A blind woman takes on the challenge of one of the world's toughest dogsled races.
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Director: Vikram Jayanti

Writer: Vikram Jayanti

Starring: Rachael Scdoris, Tim Osmar, Joe Runyan, Jerry Scdoris

Year: 2009

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US


Doc/Fest 2009

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