The Dogs of Sector X
Nanna Debois Buhl, 2016
16mm film transferred to HD, 6:55 minutes

[The Dogs of Sector X*, my contribution to the Bucharest Biennale 7, 2016, is an investigation of the changing life conditions of stray dogs in Bucharest. The work consists of this website and a billboard, displayed on a Bucharest roadside in summer 2016. During a stay in Bucharest, we followed dogs through the streets of a residential neighborhood, filmed them and spoke with the people who take care of them.]

We arrive in Sector X on a warm day in April. On one side of a long boulevard are rows of communist-era apartment blocks, their repetitive facades composing rectangular patterns. On the other side is a shopping mall still under construction. Along the road are billboards every few meters. We turn into the residential side, past the facades, to where we begin to see lush green spaces between the blocks. Children play in playgrounds and elderly people walk with careful steps along the paths.    

Walking for hours, we have only seen pedigreed dogs on leashes. In front of a low apartment block, a white dotted dog dashes around. It looks like a mixed breed. We follow the dog to its owner who is unpacking his car. Does he know any stray dogs in the area? Surprised, he replies that his dog is a former street dog and, in fact, he runs a small dog shelter. He gives me the phone number of a friend who is also involved. This is how we meet E.

We’ve read about how stray dogs started to appear in Bucharest when the Ceaușescu government began to demolish large sections of village-like areas of the city. Small houses with gardens disappeared. In their place, the government built apartment blocks to house the workers for new factories. Abandoned by their relocated owners, dogs roamed the streets and multiplied over the next few decades. In 2013, there was an estimate of 65,000 stray dogs in the city. Due to a tragic accident involving stray dogs that year, it was decided to get rid of the stray dogs altogether. We have come to find out more about the dogs who remained in spite of this law. 

Every morning we join E. as she walks her two dogs. She found both in the street. Growing up in the neighborhood, she and her brother used to name the many packs of stray dogs who lived here: There were the Melancholics (a group of small dogs who were very friendly to people they knew, but shy and fearful of people they didn’t), the Powers (dogs who lived next to an electrical power distribution unit), the Clones (a group of 6 brothers who looked alike, all caught by the dogcatchers and put to death). The packs stayed within very defined borders. The rules were clear.
There are remarkably fewer dogs in the neighborhood now. After the accident, stray dogs were picked up to be killed or taken to shelters. But there are still dogs present in the streets: now-adopted stray dogs or “community” dogs, fitted with a collar as protection against the dogcatchers. At night, the community dogs guard the blocks that they have marked out as their territory. Neighbors feed them leftovers in the daytime. Now and then you will see a roaming dog who doesn’t belong to anyone, especially further out of the city, away from the dogcatchers’ vans. 

At the entrance of a building, someone has placed buckets with food and water along with a piece of cardboard for the community dogs to sleep on. E. tells us that it is mostly elderly people who take care of the dogs. That a community dog even lives in front of the police station. But that no dogs are allowed in the new park nearby. In the marketplace there is a strong smell of herbs, parsley and dill; loud music is playing from car radios. The market dog barks at every passerby, fiercely defending his territory. Stiff-legged and blind in one eye, he lives in the street and is fed by the vendors. An elderly woman sells bouquets of lilacs. We saw her pick them on the other side of the boulevard the night before.

We pass an abandoned building. E. tells us that this is where as a child she stood in line at 5 a.m. to get tickets for Star Wars, and where the yearly “Miss Sector X” competitions took place. The building housed the only few shops in the area back then. E. tells stories about the dogs we pass: The old black one is Max. He just showed up in the neighborhood one day. A lady feeds him and shelters him when it’s too cold outside. There is Emma: she was a stray dog, running after cars, chasing cats, and sleeping in the snow. She was adopted and now rides next to her owner in the front seat of his car.

When stopping for coffee, I ask whether people met here for coffee when E. grew up. She replies that there was only black market coffee available back then. Across the street is a church with a sparkling onion dome, built just a few years ago. When areas like this were established, families were moved from building to building, from city to city. Thousands of people were relocated when a large dam was constructed not far from here. The dam serves as a reservoir, but the surrounding park never became popular as planned. Today, the concrete pillars of its Greek-style pavilions are overgrown with moss. Elsewhere, city areas were demolished when an enormous marble palace was built, the heaviest building in the world. E. speaks of erasure. Of the villages in the communist era. Of the monuments when the Berlin Wall fell. Of the stray dogs now vanishing as the city continues to transform.

*The city is divided into Sectors. For the purpose of this project we called the area Sector X. We filmed the dogs, but not their people, as many of the people did not want to appear on film.

Produced with support from The Danish Art Foundation and The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, The Academy Council, on the occasion of the Bucharest Biennale 7, May 26 – June 30, 2016.

Billboard location: Str. Progresului vis a vis Liberty Center, Sector 5, Bucharest