What are two New Zealanders doing at the Toronto Film Festival with their natural history movie shot in Canada's frozen north? Helen Barlow reports.

After a few years of television stardom in The Tribe, the New Zealand-made show about teens taking over a post-apocalyptic world, Whangarei-raised Caleb Ross headed to Canada. He had followed a girl but the relationship didn't work out. In a hostel in Toronto he saw a notice on a bulletin board: "Come to Churchill, breed Eskimo dogs, see polar bears."

Ross had already travelled to Bermuda to see the turtles, so he was a bit of an adventurer and up for it.

"He went up to Churchill, initially for a month and never really left," says veteran Wellington director Costa Botes who captures Ross and the man who posted the notice, the fiercely driven Brian Ladoon, in his documentary The Last Dogs of Winter, about their fight to save the indigenous Eskimo dogs, or Qimmiq, from extinction. Only about 500 of the breed remain.

The film has just enjoyed a rapturous response at the Toronto International Film Festival. This Kiwi movie about a corner of Canadian natural history all started when Ross made a trip home to New Zealand and ran into Botes at a market in Whangarei. He suggested they team up to produce a film about his current life in Canada, and the idea for The Last Dogs of Winter was born.

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Last Sunday in Toronto, Ross was thrilled by the reception to the film, which draws on his acting talent and will surely see him travelling the world to promote it.

"The film received a standing ovation and I have to admit I was a little choked up," the 29-year-old recalls. "The Q & A session went very well. People were coming up to us saying it's a great movie, very moving and very informative, so I couldn't have asked for any better. One of the comments Costa got from the crowd was that it's funny [for Canadians] to be taught about their native heritage by a Kiwi. I guess it's one of those issues that not a lot of people know about, which is why this story needed to be told.

"For foreign audiences Brian and the dogs are the focus, but the film in many ways is a voyage of discovery seen through my eyes. It was my first time producing, too, so it was a big learning curve for me."

With $180,000 from the NZ Film Commission, Botes, his wife Jennabeth and Ross shot the film last year during the six-week polar bear migratory season - Churchill, on Hudson Bay, bills itself as the "Polar Bear Capital of the world".

The footage of polar bears frolicking in the snow with the dogs is spectacular.

"You had to respect the bears completely," Botes notes wryly. "You had to run around them. You had to treat them as very large scary dangerous animals." Jennabeth was armed with a gun at times, just in case they came after her husband. It was never easy, though Botes admits to liking a challenge.

"My driver had to endure my yelling and screaming, and the wind, snow and sleet would slow us down. It was a game of patience. We did a lot of handheld [camerawork], grabbing things verite style. We had to sort of make it up as we went along."

Ross admits he has learned to respect the climate there, and is now better at protecting himself than when he first arrived. He basically loves living in Churchill, population 900, and working with the dogs 5km out of town.

"People are so friendly up there and now after four years I've had people introduce me as a local which is a great feeling," he says.

How long he will stay there is anyone's guess. "I have year-long visas and would like to re-apply for residency. I want the option to stay in Canada. It's a great place - the people are so friendly here. They're very similar to New Zealanders, very laid-back but productive, creative and friendly. So it's like a home away from home. There are other things I want to do in my life but it's a place I will go back to and it will always be in my heart. I find now after only four years it's hard to be away from there for too long, even if I travelled for 13 years of my life prior to moving there."

Given that he has a strong screen presence in the film, might he return to acting? "I acted for a long time. I started at the age of nine in the theatre. When we made the film it had been five years since I'd done anything in the film industry. I never meant to stop; it just happened that way. I got sidetracked by Brian's cause."

LOWDOWN
Who: Director Costa Botes and actor-turned dog conservationist Caleb Ross

What: The Last Dogs of Winter, about Canada's endangered Eskimo dogs

When: Likely to open here in early 2012.

- TimeOut