Filmmaking | Interviews | Rhode Island

Reliance: Man’s Best Friend, Man’s Last Chance

1 Jul , 2013  

Written by Anna Salatto | Posted by:

Mary Healey-Jamiel documents the critical bond between Search & Rescue first responders and their canine counterparts. This interview explores the production, the heart, and the future of the upcoming documentary feature RELIANCE.

Not only does Mary Healey-Jamiel work full-time as a tenured professor at the University of Rhode Island, but she has also been on-call 24/7 for the past three years. She might be called out in the middle of the night, during work, or on a holiday to accompany K9 Search & Rescue teams on their hunt for missing persons. This may take her looking for bodies (alive or dead) in the woods, on the shoreline, in houses, or wherever crime occurs. But she is not an officer herself; she is a filmmaker with immeasurable passion.

Mary’s work has been featured here before in a 2005 interview regarding her documentary, Holy Water-Gate an investigative documentary which unravels the sexual abuse cover-up in the Catholic Church. Her latest project Reliance (working title) follows Search & Rescue (SAR) teams on grueling searches, sometimes with harrowing resolutions. What the film focuses on is the bond between the search dogs and their handlers. Despite the difficult nature of their job, these interspecies partnerships foster strength, resilience, and love.

In the film’s spotlight is Matt Zarrella, a Rhode Island State Police Sergeant who rescues and trains dogs to be skilled K9 team members. Zarrella struggled with dyslexia during his youth and was constantly in trouble at grammar school for his high energy (yet in high school, was voted most likely to succeed). “Now Matt teaches around the country. He admits he does not learn easily, but when he does, he learns deeply,” Mary observes. “He feels a duty to ‘the discarded,’ the dead, and rehabilitates rescued ‘pound dogs’ who are ‘troublesome’ and have aggression or behavior issues.” In a touching arc, Matt is seen adopting a young dog named Ruby, only a day away from being euthanized. We see Ruby grow from a hyper trouble dog (a “pizza-stealer” on the first day she’s introduced to the police barracks) to a competent, certified search dog.

Mary was looking to explore K9 SAR teams and the relationship between dog and handler before she heard of Matt Zarrella. After coming across an article in the Providence Business News Blast, she “obtain[ed] permission through chain of command at the RI State Police to observe [Matt]” and became, essentially, part of the team.

Mary was careful to stay out of the way, but she was not just a fly on the wall, especially when it came to the dogs. “The work is too engaging to be stoic — the dogs make you laugh — and to them, you are part of the pack. They don’t care about the camera.” Indeed, one scene shows a dog running up to lick the lens. And it seems that the dogs bring a light into the film — and the lives of the handlers — that might otherwise be absent. “On the one hand people think, ‘Oh, a film about dogs! Lighthearted, right?’” Despite the serious situations that the teams endure, the dogs really do help make the story feel uplifting.

The dogs are also literally helping to lighten the situation. The handler is required to stay upbeat to keep them focused. While the dogs understand the seriousness of the search situation, they are also trained to see it as a game with an end reward. If the handler’s mood is too grave or stressed, their dog will sense this, and will be less willing to “play” and less effective in the search. “K9 handlers are upbeat, high energy people, and so are their dogs — so their energy feeds off one another and is really amazing to see in the midst of very stressful and even disastrous conditions.”

The dogs and their interactions with the handlers, along with Mary’s chronology and pacing choices, give RELIANCE a very balanced tone. The viewer does not feel bogged down by the gravity of the situations depicted; at least, not for long. “And [the tone] actually mirrors the troopers — how they react to [these situations],” Mary says. “Because they can’t deal with this stuff without humor, without lightheartedness… The dogs bring a lot of that as well — and I think they really save it. They save these folks.”

What is also amazing about RELIANCE is how the film is able to follow stories through to their conclusion, in a field where so many searches yield very little. The nature of SAR missions is not one of gift-wrapped resolution. Most searches are “speculative,” and K9 units are often used when all human resources have run dry. For example, a K9 SAR team may be called to search a basement for a buried body — while often no body turns up, the team is at least able to close that investigative thread with an answer. Mary explains, “That I’ve been able to see story elements through is a function in part of how long I’ve been documenting the story — for three years now.” She recalls the words of her consulting editor, Mary Lampson, like a motto: “’Time is a friend to RELIANCE’… it’s enabled me to follow this story to various bits of conclusion, which is a fantastic privilege.”

With three years of time, there’s bound to be some transformation not only in those on screen but also in those behind the camera. “Doc filmmaking is not a ‘balanced’ life and that’s probably in part why I like it,” Mary responds when asked how she deals with the commitment. “I had to lose my fear of heights while filming K9 training from scaffolding hundreds of feet up at the Firefighter Training Academy in Washington State. There’s nothing balanced about looking through an eyepiece while on scaffolding!” Despite the challenges and the sacrifices, “it’s so energizing and it’s so much fun to keep learning as I’m watching these teams work.”

Day by day, Mary learned through immersion — “unbeknownst to me, by filming the trainings, I was being trained in how to capture search and rescue operations.” She came to realize one of the most valuable things about the documentary filmmaking experience: “It teaches you how little you know, and it forces you to learn every day about something you just had no idea existed. But it also forces you to have courage or strength in ways you didn’t know you had, or to just be quiet and listen so that you can absorb what’s in front of you.” She says that she makes an effort to be self-reflective for her students, whom she tries to involve in the classroom and on the field.

Surprisingly, despite the years of coverage, one of Mary’s biggest concerns is whether she’s missing something. “We all have our filters, and part of my job is to be conscious of mine and not have that be a barrier for the story that needs to be told… We pay attention to things we want to pay attention to sometimes, that we’re drawn to. But those aren’t always the most important things.”

What are the most important things? When asked what single thing she wanted viewers to take away from RELIANCE, Mary exclaimed, “It certainly would not be one thing!” Yet there are some elements she finds important in the story. “I believe that dogs have much to teach us; that calmness in the face of trauma is so very crucial; that those (animals or people) who at first present as ‘hard to handle,’ challenging, can ultimately teach us more about ourselves… I believe [dogs] have the potential to teach us humans how to be better, behave more lovingly, with more tolerance and openness.”

RELIANCE is slated to be finished June 2014. Keep up to date at the project’s website. There are also a few fantastic sneak peeks to check out on Vimeo! Mary Healey-Jamiel has secured international representation and plans to hold community screenings across North America and internationally. She has also been adapting RELIANCE into a series based on the feature, an interactive documentary version of the film, and an e-book.


RELIANCE is slated to be finished June 2014. Keep up to date at the project’s website. There are also a few fantastic sneak peeks to check out on Vimeo! Mary Healey-Jamiel has secured international representation and plans to hold community screenings across North America and internationally. She has also been adapting RELIANCE into a series based on the feature, an interactive documentary version of the film, and an e-book.