URI professor’s critically acclaimed film released to international audiences

‘Searchdog’ documents work of R.I. State Police Canine Unit handlers, their canine partners

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Mary Healey-Jamiel
PROFESSOR/FILMMAKER: Mary Healey-Jamiel, award-winning filmmaker and URI professor of film/media. Photo courtesy of Mary Healey-Jamiel.

KINGSTON, R.I. — July 23, 2018 — University of Rhode Island Professor Mary Healey Jamiel’s awarding-winning documentary film “Searchdog has been released to an international audience on i-Tunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Prior to the official release Wednesday, July 18, in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the film had been No. 2 for i-Tunes pre-sales.

The 88-minute film, about a Rhode Island State Police trooper who trains shelter dogs for search and rescue missions, won Best of Fest selection at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival; Best Documentary at the 2016 Ellensburg Film Festival; Audience Award at the 32nd Boston Film Festival in 2016, Special Jury Prize at the Jefferson State FLixx Fest and the Deb Bauer Unsung Hero Award at the 2017 Catalina Film Festival. Jamiel and her film were featured in an NBC TODAY Show segment in December 2013.

A professor of Film/Media and Communication Studies in URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media and Warren resident, Jamiel said this week’s release is a personal revolution — and marks an important moment of time for indy filmmakers willing to do the hard work of self-distribution..

“For a filmmaker like me whose resources are minimal and who dedicates a great deal of time to her students, the ability to reach so many people through digital outlets like iTunes and Amazon, GooglePlay changes everything,” Jamiel said. “One has the opportunity to reach audiences on a mass scale. It’s exciting to connect this work to URI and show our students and faculty the possibilities of broad distribution through these channels. There is no other period in filmmaking that has ever presented so many opportunities.”

Jamiel started researching human interaction with dogs in 2009, and then began building her story around Matthew Zarrella, now a retired Rhode Island State Police sergeant, who trained shelter dogs, many of which were unadoptable, to become search dogs. Her film depicts the grueling work of search and rescue dogs and their handlers and the intimate, emotionally draining and touching experiences shared by the canines and their officers. She captured Zarrella and his work around the country and as far away as Vietnam to find the remains of soldiers.

URI Police Sgt. Erica Viera, who is now the handler of Figaro, the University’s first explosives detection canine, is also featured in the film with the late Maxwell, her beloved German shepherd, and their work on several search dog teams.

“Dogs are unifiers; they don’t care what you look like, how you smell, what religion you are or how much money you have,” Jamiel said. “They just want to please you and be loved by you.”

Zarrella, who has had a deep love for dogs going back to his childhood, started the canine Search and Rescue Team for the State Police.

“He took troubled dogs from the pound and worked with them to turn them into search dogs,” Jamiel said.

During filming,  Jamiel and her crew members, many of whom were URI students, had to be ready at a moment’s notice to join Zarrella and his team and other handlers on a search. Jamiel also joined searches in Maine and New York.

“There is a playfulness about the dogs and their trainers, but there is also tremendous focus,” Jamiel said. “There is no greater joy than to watch these teams train together and then go find someone.

“The handlers train with their dogs on their days off for countless hours because they love the work,” Jamiel said. “It’s not about the money or the recognition. It’s about being professional and dedicated to helping families find a loved one.”

One search highlighted in the film takes place on the coast in Tiverton where Zarrella and his canine partner, Maximus, look for a body, and where their work puts to rest the case made by many movies that a criminal can throw a dog off his scent by running in a stream, river or lake. In this segment, Maximus detects something on the edge of the water, and then starts walking in. A short time later, Zarrella and Maximus are in a boat, right above the location of the body.

“Dogs can smell well up from the water,” Jamiel said. “They can narrow a search area quantified by square miles to one quantified by square feet.

“I felt compelled to tell the story of search dogs. I became mesmerized by the work they do. I became deeply affected by this work, and if you watch the movie, you will be deeply affected, too.

“Viewers will be able to step inside the skin of a canine search and rescue handler,” Jamiel said. “They are going to experience the love, patience and talent of these committed people.”

All the while, handlers like Zarrella have to keep the work fun because dogs don’t like negative emotions, Jamiel said.

Beyond the feeling of accomplishment Jamiel got from completing a project like this, there were also important lessons for her as a professor at URI.

“The most important one for me is that learning has to be exhilarating,” the professor  said. “I can bring everything from a project like ‘Searchdog’ to the classroom, the film studio and a student filming location, including every mistake I made.”

Students who worked directly on this movie learned how to “run and gun,” which is how to be ready at a moment’s notice to capture the action of a search.

“Plus, we are literally running after the canines and their handlers, but at the same time we have to be careful because we are in a potential crime scene.”

Jamiel is deeply grateful to Zarrella for allowing her to tell his story and his dogs’ stories, but she said the film would not have been possible without the unfettered access granted by the Rhode Island State Police, including Troopers Dan O’Neil and Charlie Bergeron and Cpl. Scott Carlsten, all members of the department’s Canine Unit.

Jamiel also singled out her URI student crew members, listed below:

Ayla Fox, who now runs her own video and photography business, became associate producer and was a crucial team member during filming and post production;

SEARCHDOG Production Interns

Ayla Fox
Alex DeCiccio
Dara Hoy

SEARCHDOG Post Production Interns

Gabrielle Lesvesque
Michael Lukas
Michael Chaporian

SEARCHDOG U.S. Festivals, International Distribution & Social Media Interns

Meriel Borowko
Miranda Fraraccio
Jenna Ziegelmayer
Brianna Kelley
Owen Morris
Brandon LaFleur
Arianna Rizzo
Sunny Davis