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Susie’s Hope coming to a theater near you this summer

by Mark Burger

In less than four years, Susie — a pit-bull/shepherd mix puppy that endured unimaginable trauma — has gone from survivor to superstar, while also changing North Carolina state legislation along the way.

The award-winning feature film Susie’s Hope, will enjoy a limited-engagement “sneak preview” run beginning Friday, June 7 at the Carousel Cinemas, 1305 Battleground Ave., Greensboro.

In August 2009, a puppy was found in a Greensboro park, having been abused, set on fire and left for dead. But this courageous canine survived and thrived, thanks to a community outpouring and the love of her owners, Donna and Roy Lawrence. What makes the story even more powerful is that Donna herself had previously been mauled by a neighbor’s pit-bull.

Susie’s story did not end there, as she became the inspiration for the 2010 passage of what is commonly known as “Susie’s Law,” which strengthened penalties for animal abuse into a Class A felony.

The story of Susie and her owners also inspired a team of filmmakers. Under the direction of Jerry Rees, Susie’s Hope stars Emmanuelle Vaugier as Donna and Burgess Jenkins as Roy, with a special appearance by Jon Provost (star of the original 1950s’ TV series “Lassie”) as Sen. Don Vaughan. The film was shot entirely in the region where the story took place.

Dan AR Kelly, one of the film’s producers and co-screenwriter with director Rees, was not unaware of or unmoved by Susie’s story, which was extensively covered in the media, but admits he didn’t initially see the cinematic possibilities when fellow producer Phil Newsome first approached him about scripting the story.

One meeting with Susie changed all that. “Seeing Susie is a memorable experience,” Kelly recalls. “The scars from her abuse are impossible to ignore. To look at her is to acknowledge was has happened to her. I expected Susie to be skittish, possibly even dangerous. However, she walked right over and plopped her head in my lap.”

It might even be said that Kelly found himself on the proverbial casting couch — and he was the one being “auditioned” by the star of the story, Susie herself.

“I talked with Donna Lawrence, and I found her personal story of surviving an attack from a pit-bull equally inspiring,” Kelly relates. “I knew instantly that this story wasn’t an ‘animal’ film, but a film about humanity.”

Kelly also cites the efforts of fellow producers Newsome, Michael Lee Garrett, Ann Guill, Laura Hart McKinny, John McKinny and executive producers Brian Gavigan and Eve Roser in making Susie’s Hope a reality, literally months after the passage of the legislation. “I am still astounded by how quickly they did it,” he says.

As a writer, “I would rewrite until the day the world came to an end,” Kelly jokes, “[but] yes, I am amazed at the vision Jerry Rees, our director and the co-writer, brought to the film. He truly captured the spirit of compassion inherent in the story.

Jerry made this a family film, not just as a film appropriate for family viewing, but as a film about family — what it means and how it develops.”

The film made its world premiere at the 15 th annual RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem last month. “RiverRun was amazing,” recalls Kelly. “We had been scheduled for two screenings, but those sold out so far in advance, the festival added a third — which also sold out. We were honored to have Emmanuelle, Burgess and other cast members attend with us. Susie and Donna were at RiverRun, and they had a wonderful time. I, personally, could not imagine a better premiere.”

But, indeed, things got even better at the 13 th annual Cape Fear Independent Film Festival in Wilmington earlier this month, where the screening also sold out and the film received the Best Family Film award and a nomination for Best Feature Film at the Wilmington Film Awards Gala.

What’s more, Susie herself is eligible for awards consideration. She’s in the running for the American Humane Association Hero Dog Award. You can read more about the competition at herodogawards.org — and you can cast your votes for Susie! (The voting deadline is July 31 and the awards will be presented at the AHA Hero Dog Awards ceremony in Los Angeles in October.)

Members of the production team will be on hand for the Greensboro screenings, and it’s also very likely that Susie herself will make an appearance at one or more of them. (No diva is she!) Following its run at Carousel Cinemas, Susie’s Hope will embark on a NC Sneak Preview Summer Tour in cities throughout the state, including Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington, Asheville and Fayatteville. Details have not yet been finalized.

Susie’s Hope is scheduled to run at Carousel Cinemas through Sunday, June 9. Showtimes are 7 pm and 9:15 pm Friday (June 7), 4 pm and 7 pm Saturday (June 8) and Sunday (June 9). Tickets are $10 each. For advance tickets or more information, call 336.230.1620, or you can visit the official Susie’s Hope website: susieshope.com.

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