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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

WHITE GOD (2014) DIR. KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ

Image above: A poster from White God (image from official site)

 

As a dog lover and owner, I was really looking forward to this film which has 200 canine actors. The trailer is quite spectacular and the dog wrangler is surely a genius. However, spoiler alert, there are sections which are seriously disturbing and haunted my dreams. It has taken me several weeks to be able to write about it and to fully trust my dachshund’s unconditional love.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.47.12 PM A still from White God. (Image from official site)

 

The location is contemporary Budapest, Hungary and centers on Lili, a teenager, and her dog, Hagen, a large Laborador mix. They are being shuttled off to stay with her reluctant divorced father for three months. No one is happy about this situation. Lili barely knows her father, who works as a butcher, with goulish tendencies toward his work. He is ill-prepared both practically and emotionally to deal with this disruption to his tightly controlled and narrow life in a one bedroom apartment. He is particularly non-plussed by the unannounced presence of Hagen, It seems that there is an aggressive civic program in Budapest to restrict the mongrel canine population by imposing an onerous tax on all non purebred dogs. Many of the unlicensed mixed breeds are being abandoned by their owners, rounded up and impounded by teams of dog catchers . There are bounty hunters and informants involved in this effort. This is the milieu in which Lili finds herself when she is dropped off at her father’s bachelor apartment.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.46.53 PMA still from White God. (Image from official site)

 

It isn’t long before the tension between an understandably sulky, Lilli (Szófia Psotta) and her father reaches a boiling point. While driving in the car and arguing with Lili, he loses his temper and he dumps the dog out on the freeway and drives off. Needless to say, Lili is furious, devastated and determined to find Hagen. And here is where it starts to get interesting and weird. Not only do we follow Lili’s efforts to find Hagen, we also follow Hagen’s efforts to find his way back to Lili, but mostly to survive in this mongrel-phobic environment. (Any similarity to the plight of undocumented human aliens may be accidental). We are expertly plunged into the dog’s eye view of life on the run, scavenging for food in packs and avoiding the zealous dog catchers. Hagen is befriended by a completely endearing Jack Russell terrior who teaches him the ropes of being a street dog.

Alas, Hagen is also noticed by a sleazy petty criminal who leashes him up and sells hm to a dog-fighter. There he is abused and treated cruelly in order to induce aggressiveness. He is also trained to fight. This is where it gets really hard to watch. (The producers swear that there has been no maltreatment of any of the animals but it is a little hard to believe). The two plot lines are now spiralling out of control and do not lend themselves to verbal explication. However, when Lili and Hagen are finally face to face along with the entire stray dog population, it is a stand-off of epic proportion and a willing suspension of disbelief is rerquired.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.49.51 PMA still from White God. (Image from official site)

 

Against this fairly surreal background, we see a filial relationship develop between an angry and stubborn Lili and her bitter uncompromising father. Psotta gives a nuanced and believable depiction of a teenager in a volatile situation with no human support. The director seems to be painting a very black and white picture of human vs. animal moral superiority. All of the humans seem to be fairly venal,and lacking in empathy or compassion. The dogs, on the other hand, are all treated as innocent victims of human inhumanity. Yet, when Hagen liberates all of the city’s impounded canines, they go on a revenge rampage with an indiscrimenant viciousness against all humans which conjures up images of ISIS fighters wreaking destruction on everything in their wake. This is not for the faint-hearted.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.49.32 PMA still from White God. (Image from official site)

 

The stand off which ultimately stops the chaos feels a bit forced and far-fetched. But it is sublimely theatrical and amazingly powerful. We are left with mixed emotions about how to feel about the terrifying behavior and if anyone, man or beast, can feel safe again. This could be read as a metaphor for the delicate balance in a civil society and how precarious that is, It illustrates how profiling, incarceration and oppression on a large scale can cause irrational and violent behavior and leaves open the question of how to stop it or, more importantly, how to avoid it. The cinematography and choreography (what else to call the orchestrated movements of two hundred plus dogs?) are simply extraordinary. The dog actors are all strays. (Apparently no special effects were used). The filmmakers state after the final credits that nearly all of the dogs who appeared in the film were found adoptive homes. That is, by far, the best news about this fairly terrifying film.

Belle McIntyre

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