When filmmaker and Winthrop native Darcy Dennett saw Cherry, a pit bull with a past so traumatic he was once too afraid to even walk or have any contact with people, she knew she had to tell more of the stories of the dogs rescued from professional football player Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation.

“This is a dog that refused to take any attention from people,” Dennett, a 1988 Winthrop High School graduate, said of Cherry, one of 22 Vick dogs considered to be among the most difficult to rehabilitate. She documented that process in 2008, as part of the former Dogtown television program on the National Geographic Channel which focused on the efforts of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Following intensive work with trainers, Cherry went from avoiding any human contact and being so scared he crawled along the ground instead of walking, to being adopted by a loving family. However, the Dogtown series came to a close just after Cherry had been adopted and before many of the other former Vick dogs were adopted as pets. Dennett never got to tell the story of their continued recovery and redemption on the show.

In September 2011, Dennett was at a Best Friends fundraising event where she lives in New York City and saw a small black pit bull with a group of people standing around admiring him. She looked more closely and recognized the couple who had adopted Cherry and then saw Cherry himself basking in the attention of a semi-circle of admirers gathered around him. She said Cherry had clearly learned to trust people and enjoy life despite the trauma he had experienced.

“I found it so moving that he had come that far. I found that incredibly inspirational,” Dennett said. “And it isn’t really just about these dogs, who suffered unimaginable abuse and learned to trust people again. It’s something people can relate to. People are traumatized and you imagine they may never get past it. But if these dogs can do it, what that suggests about people being able to as well was powerful. My resolve to make the film was crystallized in that moment.”

Dennett caught up with Cherry and his owners and several other of the Vick dogs since adopted as pets and living seemingly happy, normal dog lives and made an award-winning documentary about them, “The Champions.”

The film recently became available for purchase by download online after making the film festival circuit, where it won the “Zelda Penzel Giving Voice to the Voiceless” award at the 2015 Hamptons International Film Festival and the Starz People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Denver Film Festival.

Its only planned Maine screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 20 at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

Dennett, whose parents, Diane and Charles, still live in Winthrop and whose brother, Devin, lives in Monmouth, plans a trip to Maine to attend the screening of the film.

“I’m so excited about the Railroad Square screening,” she said. “As a kid coming from a tiny town in Maine, as soon as I got my license, I’d drive the 40 minutes to Railroad Square to see these independent films in this dark room. I’m sure that had something to do with me going on to pursue film in college. It’s going to be very emotional.”

The film is a story of second-chances, redemption, hope, prejudice, being misunderstood and the resilience of the dogs and the people who stepped up to give them new homes and new lives. Even some animal rights organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, advocated to euthanize Vick’s dogs out of fear they could not be safely adopted.

Dennett, as director and producer, spent three years working on the film.

Five dogs are featured in the documentary, including Little Red, a friendly dog with a face and body full of old scars showing her dogfighting past, and Jonny Justice, now a therapy dog.

The documentary discusses a United States Department of Agriculture investigative report about Vick’s former Bad Newz Kennels, which revealed numerous abuses of dogs there. Dennett said that dogs that refused to fight or weren’t good fighters were killed, in some instances by Vick himself, according to reports. In 2007, Vick pleaded guilty to federal interstate commerce violations related to the dog-fighting operation and served 21 months in prison.

The movie shows no dogfighting, an intentional decision. Dennett acknowledged that showing the horrors of dogfighting, then showing how far the dogs have come after their rescue, potentially could have made for a stronger documentary. But she said dogfighting scenes would be hard for people to watch, and she wanted to make a film people would want to come see and could bring their children to see.

She said the positive response the film has received has been overwhelming.

“When you embark on a film, it’s scary. You’re putting yourself out there, and you think, ‘What if people don’t like it,'” she said. “But it’s a positive and uplifting story, and people have responded to it. I’m grateful for that. It’s important that people be reminded there are good things happening in the world.”

Dennett and her husband, Paul Whitworth, have three pets: Mao, also known as Monkey, a cat with special needs adopted from Best Friends; Nina a chihuahua-miniature pincher mix rescued from a shelter in Los Angeles; and Beadle, a mixed breed cat also from Best Friends.

She said rescued animals like the dogs in “The Champions” seem to bring their own rewards to their humans.

“I feel like the people who adopted these dogs recognize they require quite a bit more work and investment. But there’s a payoff in that that makes you feel really good to give these animals a chance, and if you invest all the love, energy, time and patience, there is a reward,” Dennett said. “They return that kindness with love. It’s not just what these people are doing for the dogs; it’s what the dogs are doing for the people who adopted them.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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