Review: ‘Sled Dogs’ documentary exposes the harsh realities of Iditarod

Based on the depth of your love for animals, “Sled Dogs” may turn out to be one of the most disturbing documentaries you’ll ever see – if you can bear it. This gripping expose of the dark side of the commercial dog sledding industry, particularly as it relates to the annual Iditarod Trail sled dog race in Alaska, is horribly heartbreaking.

On its surface, the 1,049-mile Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome is a celebration of athletic prowess and endurance, pairing committed mushers, trainers and veterinarians with beautiful, elite animals that, are said to have been born to compete in the brutal conditions of the sport.

But is this highly profitable event and tourist magnet simply, as one observer here puts it, “the tip of a very dirty and cruel iceberg?” So agrees director Fern Levitt, whose cameras intimately capture the many tentacles of the Iditarod, from the grueling racing itself to the questionable, sometimes shocking, but largely legal methods used by breeders, trainers and breeders. The inclusion of a 2010 incident in Whistler, British Columbia, in which 100 “unprofitable” sled dogs were killed and buried in a mass grave, contains harrowing archival footage and details.

Levitt’s access to a wide range of spokespersons on both sides of this very charged topic provides much to stir, irritate and illuminate. But it bears repeating: this vital doc is a tough luge.

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‘Sled dogs’

Unclassified

Operating time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Cinema Center, Santa Monica

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Bette C. Alvarado