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Young Critics Workshop – White God: Cruel to be Kind

White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2014)

In late 2013, the Hollywood Reporter published an exposé of the American Humane Association, the nonprofit tasked with monitoring animals on the sets of major film and TV productions. They revealed a large number of animals have been killed or injured on film sets the AHA had given a stamp of approval. So Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which depicts the stray dogs of Budapest rising up against their human tormenters after putting up with one too many abuses, ends on a sad joke with an end-credit notice assuring audiences that “the strictest American guidelines were followed.”

There’s more to onscreen animal treatment than safety, though. There’s also the matter of what the film has to say about cruelty, and how it uses its subjects to say it. White God is a rather blunt allegory of all disenfranchised people, be they of different races, classes or species, and a howl at the godlessness of a world that would treat living beings with contempt and bloodlust. As such, it is graphic in its depiction of what comes before the uprisings. The film is filled with cruel humans: the father who separates the mixed-breed star Hagen (played by twins Luke and Body) from his compassionate owner Lili (Zsófia Psotta); the higher class, who view Hagen as flea-carrying vermin; and the dogfighter who imprisons him, sharpening his fangs and breaking his spirit to turn the harmless mutt into a killing machine. Enough dogs are shot, drugged, and tortured for sport in this movie to make a mockery of DoesTheDogDie.com.

Eventually Hagen forms a resistance with the other abandoned dogs at the pound. Together they take over the city, the domesticated turned predatory, reverting to primal instincts they enjoyed before humans came along. Here it finally becomes obvious that the film was made by dog lovers. When they rebel, the language of Cinema Apocalyptica – empty streets, people falling over each other in their mad rush to escape, wind howling through hastily made barricades – emboldens their cause by showing their masters cowering in fear. A side plot involving Lili’s own journey of self-discovery seems half-baked and, given the circumstances, out of place – the dogs are about to take over, for crying out loud.

The more Mundruczó pushes White God toward this surreal conclusion, though, the more distracting the director’s hand becomes. This is most apparent in the climactic rebellion, which includes several eerie shots of dog armies perfectly poised for battle in the streets. It’s an experience unlike any other animal scene on film. But it’s obviously manmade, the product of human minds capable of spatial reasoning and a sense of artistry. And what the audience sees of the dogs’ targets betrays a sense of revenge that’s rather unique to humans, since all the canine victims are people who angered Hagen. Perhaps it’s a sad paradox of making an animal film that people can’t help but betray what makes them human in the process.